Mon | Nov 20, 2017

Editorial | On to the next shiny object

Published:Friday | June 30, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, reminds us, a little bit, of a kid at Christmas. Each new present is treated with ever greater excitement and astonishment.

So, in March, Mr Chuck described the Government's proposed new national identification system, for which a bill is now before Parliament, as likely to be "one of the most important and effective crime-fighting tools yet".

On Wednesday, as debated in the House, the Government's much-talked-about bill to allow for the establishment of so-called zones of special operations, Mr Chuck spoke with similar wonder and expectation about the proposed law. Its passage, he said, would allow the security forces to put criminals and gunmen to flight.

"We cannot allow these gunmen to take over the country," he said. "We must put them on the run."

By assuaging the Opposition, by making more palatable the mechanism for deciding on the zones to be intervened and arrangements to protect community members from abuse, the Government seems set to get the law, absent the partisan rancour that would jeopardise any chance of its success.

 

OVERSELLING A LAW

 

But this notwithstanding, we remain concerned that Mr Chuck - on behalf of Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who has taken direct ownership of the legislation - may be overselling a law, which wasn't required to meet the administration's intent and whose use will still have to be monitored against police overreach and civil-rights abuse.

The declared objectives of the bill are, on the face of it, virtuous. Communities under the thumbs of criminals can be declared zones of special operations, upon which the security forces will descend to displace the hard men of violence, followed by government agencies and civil-society organisations with economic and community-development projects.

As we noted when the legislation was unveiled three months ago, there is a ready model in the decade-old experiment in Rio's favelas, in which Police Pacification Units, having gained beachhead by dislodging gang members, partner in state and city-supported community-renewal efforts.

Prime Minister Holness didn't, either then or now, need a new law to adapt the Rio experiment to Jamaica. The power of detention and search on the reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, or is about to be committed, set out in this bill, is not only a feature of common law, but is found in many other bits of legislation, most notably the Constabulary Act.

It is of concern, though, that when combined with the right of the security forces to implement curfews and the length of the time a community might be maintained as a zone of special operations, there is the possibility of establishing the psychology and environment, if not all the powers, of a state of emergency, without the need for the imprimatur of the governor general and the special parliamentary vote for one to be declared. It is in this context that we urge vigilance in the oversight of its use.

While Mr Chuck has highlighted the security aspect of the bill, others in the administration have noted what they see as its larger intent: its development aspect. Indeed, the bill proposes that immediately after police intervention in a community, a broad-based committee be established to do an inventory of its social and economic needs.

If Prime Minister Holness so desires, he could, right now, deploy hordes of government technocrats, non-governmental organisations, and civil-society officials in any community to do the same thing and make the resources for its overhaul a priority for his government. Notably, while the bill asks for the inventory, many of which already exist in Government files, it says nothing about resources.

Hopefully, this law won't be one to be excited about until inertia and boredom set in - and the search for the next shiny object begins.