Mon | Dec 10, 2018

Peter Espeut | Is Bobby Montague Hercules?

Published:Friday | February 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica is clamouring for the Government to develop and publish a comprehensive crime plan that will reduce murders, abductions, rapes, robberies and the like to acceptable levels. And one is needed. But one gets the impression that people believe that it is possible to reduce crime while everything else remains the same in our highly unequal society.

Surely, you will agree that no meaningful and effective strategies can be designed until we have a handle on what causes crime in this relatively new nation, and there is, as yet, no consensus as to what gives rise to crime in Jamaica.

The dominant feeling seems to be that the source of crime in Jamaica is some small group of perpetrators, such that if they can be identified and exterminated, the rest of us will be able to live in a relatively crime-free Jamaica.

So over the years, we have encouraged the police to form the Eradication Squad, the Echo Squad, the Ranger Squad, the S-90 Squad, Operation ACID, Operation CREST, Operation Intrepid, Operation Dovetail, the Special Anti-Crime Task Force (SACTF), the Crime Management Unit, the Major Investigative Task Force (MIT), the Organized Crime Unit, Operation Kingfish, and many others. In the process, we became (and still are) a country with one of the highest rates of police killings in the world.

Clearly, death squads don't work, and I hope that when the comprehensive anti-crime plan is announced, it won't be the insanity of the formation of some new squad, unit, or task force, for as Einstein is alleged to have said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

This reminds me of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. His second labour was to slay the many-headed Lernaean Hydra, a difficult proposition, since for every head that was chopped off, two more grew in its place. Agents of the State have slain thousands of young Jamaican men over the years in an effort to eradicate crime, and the murders continue unabated. It is time to try something new.


Extraordinary powers


The notorious Suppression of Crime Act was put in place in 1974 as a temporary crime-fighting measure. Lasting for 20 years, it placed extraordinary powers into the hands of the police to stop, search and detain, and led to the erosion, and abuse, of the human rights of many poor Jamaicans. The Suppression of Crime Act did not lead to the suppression of crime, and had to be repealed.

I hope that when the comprehensive anti-crime plan is announced, it won't contain the insanity of further abrogation of human rights in the name of crime-fighting. It is unethical to attempt to attain a good end using unethical means.

An interesting theory in criminology sees crime as protest against inequality. Much scientific research conducted all over the world suggests that places with pronounced income inequality (conspicuously displayed) are more likely to have high rates of violent crime. And Jamaica has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. Strain theory suggests that when poorer people perceive inequality, they feel less of a commitment to social norms, and, in turn, come to view crime as more acceptable.

Numerous studies about murder rates have found that, on average, countries with high income inequality also have high murder rates. People may be willing to accept large income disparities without turning to crime, as long as they believe the system is fair, and that with hard work, they, too, could one day be rich.

There is widespread consensus that corruption is rife in Jamaica - in politics, in law enforcement, and in the courts. The poor know that the system is stacked against them. Income inequality creates, among poor people, incentives to make money through gang involvement, crime, drugs, scamming, or violence.

What we need is a new normal - a country where political corruption is at a minimum, and where there is more equity and equality in the education and health-care systems. The task of breaking the link between politics and crime in Jamaica reminds me of the fifth labour of Hercules: the cleansing of the Augean stables.

In my high-school Latin reader, Hercules both killed the Hydra and cleansed the filthy Augean stables. Do we have a Hercules here?

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to