Understanding numbers: How Jamaica being baffled by crime is hard to understand

I won’t make this long. Jamaicans are often accused of being numerically illiterate. Unfair? Here is the latest proof. 2016 witnessed 1350 murders on the island, which over 366 days (a Leap Year, remember), means about 3.7 murders a day. So far, during the first 3 days of 2017, we have had reported 11 murders, which (surprise) is 3.7 murders times 3. JCF data show that murders are happening all over the country, though still largely an urban phenomenon (which is just sheer weight of numbers). The Parish of St. James (‘capital’ of lotto scamming) is surpassing all areas. The downtrend in murders following the Tivoli operations in 2010 stopped after a couple of years and is now clearly up again. The shake-up in the world of gangs is still on-going (why would it stop?), and it’s moved away from Kingston. 

So, why are people surprised? What happened at the turn of the year to stop the spigot of killings? Nothing, as far as I know. If the annual feasting on food and drink did nothing to curtail the killing, then it must continue its trend thereafter. So, rickety policing and creaking justice system didn’t get a make-over, sir? Go to the naughty corner!

Now, please don’t get me wrong and get all bent out of shape: this is nothing to do with what I think about much of the violence that I am trying to understand. It’s about how a people (Jamaicans) can watch a phenomenon, do little to affect it, and then expect things to change. 

One answer is blind faith, as in ‘The Lord will provide’ (no offence to my fellow religious faith followers).

Another answer is total apathy: there’s got to be someone who’s going to do something about this, right.

Another answer is denial.

On the one hand, Jamaica’s crime problems are simple to solve. If, like New Year resolutions, each person made and kept a pledge, our crime would disappear overnight. The pledge would be: “I will not take the life of any fellow being”. Now, for many of us, this is an old pledge, even if unstated. It’s how we live our lives. Whatever befalls us, we do not see that making the decision to end another person’s life is ours to make. However, some have made the pledge and not kept it, or not made the pledge? The questions to try to answer are ‘Why?’ and (less important, I think) maybe ‘When?’

Jamaica’s killing spree is odd. It’s not much about serious redistribution of riches between Jamaicans who are wealthy and those who are not, as it’s much targeted on in-fighting (gang warfare, is the term used by JCF). However, let me pull back. That is about redistribution of riches, that come from controlling real/turf. Whatever is possible in terms of revenue/money gains must be so enticing that having that control is worth risking and taking lives. Countries do this all the time, so that part is not odd. But, why are killers not pointing their arms against those who are outside the turf, except it seems in a few cases? If I have that wrong, then blame JCF for not giving me enough details to come to another conclusion. But, I am getting there from my reading of reports in the media. (JCF was reported yesterday to be doing a full analysis of murders and also taking a five-year perspective.)

The wave of domestic violence that ends in killing is not much different, it seems, as we hear of few cases where such incidents are in homes/neighbourhoods known to be better-off. So, in a class sense, it seems like ‘poor people’s’ troubles. If I’m wrong, again, please set me straight. 

Those two categories of killing seem to cover the bulk. Now, in terms of how to address them, we can go back to the three suggested states of mind. 

We know plenty of Jamaicans are fatalistic and see all of this as either part of a master plan to pay us back for wickedness, or just ‘His will’. Hard to analyse that. (Blind faith.)

We know lots of people don’t care, really, so long as they do not seem to be affected. (Apathy.)

We know lots of people are finding reasons to look away and protect or even aid those who kill. (Denial.)

The PM says he has big plans to announce on how to address the crime ‘problem’. I will be in search of things that seem to tackle the states of mind. Am I optimistic? Not really. What I heard yesterday about harsher measures for gun-related crimes is typical Jamaica-lala. We already have life imprisonment as the maximum sentence, so are we going to extend those sentences into the after-life? I asked how many such sentences had been handed out in the past five years. Still awaiting an answer. Some also say through this fast, and asked about the mere matter of illegal possession, not getting to use. Let’s hear if silence prevails.

A great maxim for success is always give yourself a chance to succeed, not to fail. Let’s see how ‘Team Jamaica’ take to the field today. 

Crime in Jamaica: On the verge of what?

It’s hard to know what people really feel about many topics because we have no true way of gauging all the opinions at any time. We tend to get outcries from people, both close to, and far from, issues and incidents. We get opinions thrust at us by ‘opinion shapers’–media, politicians, pressure groups, interested parties, etc. We can take from all of that what we wish. 

Right now, we are going through a lot of introspection over the high rate of violent crimes in Jamaica. Many people have no interest in solving or reducing those crimes themselves, by direct action: that’s dangerous and not sure to have success in individual or collective cases. They take that position in part from the fact that society has created bodies to deal with law and order, and they should do that task. Many people will try to do their part by being law-abiding citizens, but that does not mean that they will try to uphold the law if they see it being broken, or suspect that to be the case. Let’s agree that is a reasonable reaction if one is concerned with self-preservation. I’m not going to impose some moral duty on anyone without having a good idea how their life is shaped, with its responsibilities and past, current and future problems.

But, having left the task to the powers of law and order, people reasonably get disappointed, even angry, when it appears that these bodies are not making crime go away, and, even worse, crime seems to be increasing and getting far too close. So, some people start to clamour for change.  

That change demanded can be in several forms, but I think is distilled into (a) change of bodies (living or organizations), and (b) change of actions. So, people will seek personnel changes at the head of organizations, and maybe lower down if they feel that such wholesale change is needed. That’s what the Republic of Georgia did a few years ago by sacking its whole police force (known to be corrupt) and starting over. Or, people will seek or get different organizations, such as different forms of legal processes to speed up the the wheels of justice, eg with say ‘gun courts’. We may also get more radical changes, such as the creation of some mixed police-military force to deal with what seems like more than a simple crime problem and has implications of national security. We may also get different actions. For instance, forms of policing may change; it could become more ‘collaborative’ or ‘community based’ (they tend to be mutual), or it could be more ‘abrasive’ (in the belief that force meeting force will yield tangible results). Proponents of each will tend to be poles apart in thinking which will work better. But, that’s for the people to resolve, if given a chance. 

Anyway, people will ‘see’ that ‘something’ has been done. Then, we get to see what, if anything, changes.

So, in Jamaica, we are going through these processes. Some of the change seems voluntary or spontaneous. 

The Commissioner of Police just announced his resignation, after just over two years in the post. I would say he had some successes but visibly several failures, if one judges the rate of murders as a key statistic. The JCF spun the line that crime was declining and only murder was rising. They seemed to miss the point that telling people they were more likely to be killed wasn’t comforting. Dr. Williams seemed to want to root out corruption, in his words, and judging by the reports one still sees, he had some success, but it’s a work-in-progress. We read too many ‘crooked cop’ stories.

An interim Commissioner has been appointed, from within the ranks, and she was highly considered when the post last came vacant. Like the outgoing Commisoner, she has high academic qualifications in law enforcement. However, we can say safely that such qualifications are no guarantee of success in dealing with crime in Jamaica. But, let Ms. Novelette Grant have a chance to impress. 

So far, no one has publicly called for other changes in the police force, and that’s not a surprise. I think the JCF needs a root and branch approach to its culture and practices, which we have seen in recent times, but know from a long way back are outdated, inefficient, insensitive, self-protective, dangerous to the process of justice, and encouraging of wrong doing rather than the opposite. I have said repeatedly that until the JCF can show itself capable of fulfilling its tasks in a coherent and consistent manner for a period of time, the last thing to do is give it more powers. As with a child, show us that you can manage those little walking steps well first, then we will think about letting you run around. Now, I imagine the JCF feels under siege, but it’s a situation much of its own making.

Some are clamouring for a change of style that shows ‘no holds barred’ in dealing with crime and criminals. (I am in danger of doing what I see being done, which is to talk in platitudes or cliches, but I will try to be specific.) One suggestion from a politician, yesterday, was to dispense with INDECOM (the body that oversees and investigates conduct of the security forces), label killers as ‘terrorists’ and ‘shoot’. Not surprisingly, that suggestion set off a few reactions, including from me. What’s unknown is how many feel the same way.
Now, from what I have seen over the past, this politician has a tendency to provoke, so one needs to be careful about being drawn in too much by the words, but to have some notion of what thinking may be going on behind them, because he’s also a mathematician. In my mind, that means that he is not a fool but capable of intricate calculations about possible and probable outcomes (including reactions), including to what he says and does. So, to paraphrase him, it’s important to not get ‘played’ or caught in a ‘joke’. However, think hard about this line of argument:

But let’s try to wrestle with the superficial statements and whether they really see a place for due process as we now know it. 

My main reservation about these ideas is that many killers have shown clearly by how, where and when they’ve acted that the prospect of being killed seems to hold little or no fear. But, let me deal with crime from another perspective. 

I asked a few weeks ago whether Jamaica was at civil war. Wesbsters defines it as ‘a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country‘. (We may argue about what ‘war’ means, but it’s armed conflict between groups.) You can see from the context that I did not pose the question assuming that ‘civil war’ was striking us nationwide. It was notable that West Kingston was once again at the centre of police-citizen disorder. The events in Tivoli in 2010 had all the hallmarks of a civil war episode, in my mind, with the security forces of the State pitted against a community, and armed resistance taking place. Now, I did not hear of any political cause that was being put forward, but I’m not sure that would negate the idea that civil war existed. 

Anyway, my point is that if we are in a state of civil war, in some or several areas, against common or disparate groups, then that changes the nature of the attempt to keep law and order, and brings it clearly into the realm of national security. In other words, the sometimes uncertain role of the army in dealing with what appears to be crime can and must change. 

I’m not well enough versed in constitutional and legal matters to know what that may imply, but I am willing to listen to those who are. 

The police tell us repeatedly about how many murders are the outcome of gang disputes. We can ask what the gangs are doing and who they are doing it for. If part of their existence is to make inaccessible parts of the country–which seemed to be the case in Tivoli in the past and in recent months, and seemed so in parts of St. James, recently, we have to ask ourselves whether we are dealing with simple criminal activity or something quite different

The terrorist/shoot suggestion is problematic on many levels, not least whether we want to give such power to the police force that has shown itself to be less-than-capable in just carrying out its simple policing duties. 

It also leaves open how we treat killing that somehow does not fit this ‘terrorist’ labelling. I wont go into the various forms of manslaughter or murder, but just worry that very diffent forms of violent crimes like domestic abuse and gang-related killings would seem to defy a one-size-fits-all solution. Unless, one says if you kill you will be killed. Jamaica has a religious basis for taking that view and I will watch the discussions to see what if any justification comes forth.

I do not see Jamaica’s crime problem (and it’s not just murder that we need to deal with) as amenable to any quick solution (short of eradicating large swathes of the population–AND I AM NOT ADVOCATING THAT!) The social basis for the existence of much criminal activity was built over decades and supported by people in power and made legitimate by a principle of tolerance so that much wrong doing was normalized. Committing crimes is part of our culture; it has its tentacles in almost every aspect of our lives. We would be dishonest to deny it, though it is not a comfortable admission. You cannot flip a switch and just turn off those processes. 

I also do not see a lasting solution to crime in Jamaica (in its many and disturbing forms) that can come from the organizations set up to uphold law and order ‘dong something’ without the full engagement on a sustained basis of the majority of citizens. 

I would be very worried if the ‘terrorist/shoot’ idea got much support, but I would not be surprised to see that happen. It has appeal in terms of its seeming to correct a wrong. But, it holds so many dangers for all of us. 

Uncertainty in a world of quick answers: The JCF paints itself into a corner over a murder most foul

When I do not know the answer to a question, I try to find it. If I cannot find it, then I go away with the frustration that the question remains unanswered–at least, for me. I do not want to speak for others, just myself. I often try to put what facts I can find against the question to give me the answer. Just getting statements that purport to be the answer is not good enough. If those statements seem to have flaws, then I try to find ways to remove those. Until I get clarity I will not make a pronouncement. I do not want to speak for others, just myself. I’m patient and will hold my judgement until I feel I can go forward with a view that I can back up.

I have been following a murder case in Jamaica that just ended with the suspect being freed, on the instruction of the judge to the jury to acquit. The facts of the case were few. A schoolboy, Khajeel Mais, was shot, while riding in a taxi on July 1, 2011. The allegation was that the taxi crashed into a car, a BMW X6, whose driver allegedly then proceeded to draw a gun and shot into the cab, hitting the boy in the process. The driver of the taxi, Wayne Wright, took the boy to a nearby police station. The boy died.

Days after the shooting, the police sought to find the owner of the BMW, now suspect, Patrick Powell, went to his home on July 10, found him absent abroad, and searched for the gun, without success. The next day, the man returned to Jamaica on July 11 and was detained and requested to hand over his registered firearm; he refused, reportedly on his lawyer’s advice. The case against the man proceeded, without having found the weapon, and with the suspect claiming his innocence.

Some police forensic work was done that established the taxi and the man’s car had matching paint marks, suggesting a collision. However, ballistics information was limited, and without a gun, no matches could be made of a weapon and shell. Gunpowder residue was found on the hands of the  victim. There appeared to be only one eyewitness, and his statement submitted in evidence was that the suspect was the man who shot into the taxi.

Following multiple delays, the case goes to court after five years. However, under cross-examination at trial by the prosecutor, the witness recanted that statement, and is then treated as a ‘hostile witness’. The prosecution case falls.

Many people are amazed that what seemed to be a clear case descended quickly into a legal mess. The expectation of a verdict of guilty went away fast once there was no way to pin the suspect to the scene of the crime. We see many flaws of our legal system exposed. We see many concerns about the fairness of our society exposed: it seems that another ‘well-to-do’ person has bettered the legal system, and those ‘less well placed’ suffered, again.

Society wants answers to troubling events, but will it accept what it wants without proof that it has what it needs? That, to me, is one of the important questions.

The Jamaica Constabulary Force issued a statement, Police High Command Responds To Murder AcquittalIt leave more questions unanswered than it answers. But, for me, several questions are stark:

  • If a country has laws that allow a suspect to refuse a request to hand over a registered firearm suspected of being used in a crime, how can you really expect to solve gun crimes?
  • If your national ballistics database for registered firearms is being created, alphabetically, and a suspect comes up, whose name is not yet reached, are you content to say, that is reason enough to not enforce the advancing of compiling data for that person, exceptionally?

With questions like that, what is the meaning of the JCF’s statement (my emphasis) ‘According to the High Command, the Police did everything that was expected to be done to ensure the successful prosecution of the murder case against Mr. Powell.’?

People’s confidence in the competence of the police force is low in Jamaica. I’m sorry to say that doing everything that was expected to be done’ is ambiguous. It’s not everything that should have been done, or everything that could have been done, it’s less than either, IF the expectation is that not much will be done.

The defence attorney, Patrick Atkinson, a former Attorney General, commented on the radio yesterday to Cliff Hughes that ‘information contained in the [JCF] press release is not correct’[listen and read here]. Do you feel your confidence in proceedings rising or falling?

I do not know the identity of the killer, but I am convinced that not enough was done to establish who that was. To turn around a metaphor, many stones were left unturned. The killer is still at large–FACT. The gun is still not found–FACT. We are swimming in uncertainty. Speculation doesn’t change that. The vast majority of crimes in Jamaica go unsolved–FACT. Add another one to that statistic.

What may happen if the suspect is forced to relinqish his firearm and tests on it show it was the murder weapon? The case against him cannot be retried (double jeopardy). We still would not know whose finger was on the trigger.

I’ll share just a few exchanges I’ve had over recent years about justice, not just in Jamaica.

FYI, Charles Blow is the noted New York Times columnist, and we had an exchange in 2012:

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I added earlier this week:

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Earlier this year, I had the exchange with reporter, Karen Madden, and it reflects a basic weakness that affects our ‘crime fighting’ efforts in Jamaica:
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You would have to be an optimist of an extraordinary order to have faith in the Jamaican justice system to deliver a fair outcome: it’s proven repeatedly to be unable to do that. Cases coming to trial, few as they are, and slowly as they do, merely reinforce the apparent unfairness. The main actors dispensing justice often seem duplicitous. (It seems standard that a police officer is allegedly complicit in trying to hide evidence. That it was unproven in this case, doesn’t detract from the strong suspicion that the coppers are bent.) Little wonder that those ordinary citizens who help build the system–especially, witnesses and jurors–are tempted to also ‘game’ the system. Listen to the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions about how people seem ‘schooled’ in recanting statements and avoiding perjury.

A cart rumbling along, on its uneven wheels, is likely to breakdown completely and spill all its contents.

Speaking for myself, my faith in the justice system is low. I have seen little reason to change that view. I’ve heard a string of platitudes that suggest that ‘talk is cheap’. Heaven help anyone who has to go through its wringer.