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Editorial | Early lessons from Mount Salem

Published:Tuesday | September 5, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Given what the security forces say is a tactical shift in their Mount Salem operation aimed at deterring and capturing criminals, we expect fewer complaints from residents who want to go about legitimate business but don't possess identification cards. Law-abiding citizens felt harassed every time they had to convince the police and soldiers manning the checkpoints at several entrances/exits to the community of their bona fides.

But six days into the launch of the Holness administration's first zone of special operations under a new anti-crime law, the security forces apparently have fewer checks, and those that remain appear to have gone deeper into the community. The explanation is that the exercise has transitioned from its initial emphasis on curfews to an accent on cordons and searches at closer quarters.

Some people, of course, are sceptical of that narrative, preferring to believe that the security forces, and the Government more broadly, were embarrassed into relaxing the state of emergency-style grip on the community because of claims of the use of erroneous crime data as the basis for Mount Salem's role as guinea pig for this initiative. Community activists dispute the police's claim that there have been 54 murders in Mount Salem proper so far this year, or that 12 gangs operate in the area.

Whatever else happens in Mount Salem during the initial 60 days of what is supposed to be an effort to displace criminals, then hold and build the community, two important lessons have already been learnt from this venture.

The first, and perhaps more important, is for the security forces and the Government to speak with certainty and clarity and be fulsome and fact-based with their reasons for declaring a community a zone of special operations, a declaration that will inherently impinge on people's freedom, even if not their constitutional rights.

Assuming there was no ulterior motive, political or otherwise, in the choice of Mount Salem for the start of this project, it is almost nitpicking for a community of fewer than 5,000 people and under 2,000 households to be quibbling over whether it had 12 or 54 murders in eight months. Indeed, given Mount Salem's population, 12 murders would translate to a homicide rate of nearly 250 per 100,000 population, or nearly five times the national average.




But even in these circumstances, sensitivities prevail. Some Mount Salem residents believe that being the first to be intervened, their community was being painted as the worst of the worst. And the failure of the authorities to publicly defend their data, or to expand on the decision-making criteria, not only gives fuel to potential mischief-makers, but weakens the credibility of the Government. That is not good for this and future operations. The lesson therefrom must be learned.

Second, the problems of people without IDs and the tensions that that will cause in their interactions with the security forces will be replicated in other communities declared zones of special operations. We, however, see it as an opportunity for the Government to get its national ID project going, even ahead of the formal passage of legislation.

It can't be difficult to establish identification centres, including for the taking of fingerprints, at or near checkpoints, or in central areas, where people can voluntarily register and collect IDs, including, on the signing of an appropriate waiver, giving biometric information, such as fingerprints. The information from persons who formally agreed could later be transferred to the national database, when that system becomes law.

This is an issue on which the Government should engage the country in an open and frank conversation if it really believes, as administration officials say they do, that having a national ID system is critical to improving internal security.