Editorial | Of SOEs and crime plans
It wouldn’t have required a rummage of the toolbox by the Holness administration in reaching for the state of public emergency (SOE) with which it is responding to the deepening problem of a growing number of homicides in the St Andrew South Police Division. For, SOEs increasingly appear to be the Government’s tool of choice for dealing with Jamaica’s crisis of crime. It has declared seven in a year and a half.
The administration can, with credibility, argue that states of emergency are used because they work. In 2018, for instance, when three were in place for varying periods of up to a year, murders declined nationally by 22 per cent, to 1,287. In St James, the fall was even more dramatic – 70 per cent, to 102, from 342 in 2017, when the parish’s homicide rate was above 400 per 100,000, or more than eight times the national average.
Moreover, after the 2010 west Kingston security operation, which included a state of emergency, to capture crime boss Christopher Coke, murders islandwide declined by a third, before beginning a new climb four years later.
It is, therefore, understandable that the Government and the security forces would opt for an SOE in the St Andrew South region in the face of an incipient crisis. For the first six months of this year, there were 94 homicides in the police division, an increase of 19 per cent on the corresponding period in 2018. Reported shootings, over the same period, increased by 40 per cent to 98. According to Prime Minister Andrew Holness, criminal gangs are mostly behind this violence, accounting for around 70 per cent of all the homicides in the police division.
Even as we sympathise with the Government and others who call for the imposition of states of emergency in other police divisions, communities or entire parishes, we are concerned that their use may be becoming almost reflex, stifling the obligation of policymakers, and the constabulary, to devise thoughtful, creative solutions to a serious problem. For while the public has been treated to broad sweeps about anti-crime initiatives, it has been offered no strategic, programmatic or tactical approach to implementation, or expected outcomes.
Further, the long-term, uncritical use for crime-fighting is antithetical to liberal democratic traditions. After all, the framers of the Constitution expected that with its authority for the circumscription of individual rights and freedoms, a state of emergency would be used in only the most extreme of circumstances, such as in cases of war or civil uprising.
Many people argue that Jamaica’s situation has met the criteria for SOEs. Our expectation, however, is that they would be short, sharp and surgical, with the security forces having previously identified the crime producers. The prolonged use of this measure has the risk of eroding respect to democratic norms, inclusive of constitutional rights, as well as the principle of policing by consent, and the loss by the constabulary of investigative skills. Additionally, the longer an SOE stays in place, the anecdotal evidence suggests, the greater its loss of efficacy.
It is against this backdrop that this newspaper wants desperately to believe the declaration by the police chief, Major General Antony Anderson, that he has strategies other than the SOE to tackle Jamaica’s crime. But what have been outlined, so far, without more, amount to general declarations of intent, rather than hard strategies with implementation timelines and projected outcomes. For instance, declaring a strategy of “crime reduction and controls”, or “organisational restructuring and capacity building” of the constabulary tells us nothing if we are not aware of what these entail and the deliverables that underpin them.