Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Why are our governments afraid to deal with crime?

Published:Sunday | January 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Last year was extremely bad for crime and violence. We simply can't repeat that this year.

Before Independence, Jamaica with its Constabulary Force (JCF), was among the top countries in the world in registering an extremely low murder rate. In the 55 years since Independence, the country with its own leaders facilitating garrisons, introducing ridiculous bail policies, and strangling the police force with a plethora of oversight bodies, is among the top five countries with the highest murder rate. Who gets the blame? The police!

To know how bad things are, our murder rate is worse that many countries in a civil war. Adding to the woeful narrative, in 2015, the last full year of the PNP government, homicide rose 20 per cent; in 2016, when both governments were in power, it rose 12.5 per cent; and, 2017, the first full year of the JLP government, it jumped 25 per cent.

Clearly crime is not partial, and both governments having pursued some policies which are destructive, have not implemented correspondingly tough measures to combat crime in the present environment.

The leaders of both parties, along with present and former ministers of justice and national security have a good fix on the problem and what needs to be done. So why are things getting worse, not better, especially as the JLP's election promise was to provide undisturbed sleep to everyone, even when doors and windows are open?

Because slavery and the country's colonial past still dominate thinking and behaviour. Jamaica has a broad "coalition of conscience" loosely pulled together around opposition to capitalism; imperialism; exploitation, oppression; alienation; material inequality; IMF; the plantation system; the 21 families, symbolising degrees of wealth concentration; and race and class divisions.

Social groupings, rooted in the shared experience of injustice and oppression, and running across party lines, come together and push back on policy measures which work against equal rights and justice, women, the unemployed youth, the inner city mother, the poor, the marginalised, powerless, landless, the environment, and small farmers.

These social groupings also push back against any power structure or agent of the state, such as the police, arguing that they defend and preserve the existing social and cultural relations while undermining equal rights and justice. That's why the police force from very early on earned the moniker 'Babylon' and has been disliked and treated with disdain by so many in the society.

Whenever police performance takes centrestage, the corruption narrative secures high billing and history is summoned to reveal how much the police were called upon by their colonial masters in the 1800s and early 1900s to ensure the peace by keeping the natives in line, thereby disqualifying the JCF, as some propose, from any serious role in law enforcement today.

And here, media personnel; university graduates; criminal lawyers; the new wealthy; Christians; moralists; environmentalists; those priding themselves as reformers and progressives; human rights groups; international grant-giving agencies; the marginalised; and those regarding themselves as powerless, irrespective of their professional success; are a formidable and articulate coalition of conscience, especially when laced with righteous indignation.

Collectively these are the power groupings that rattle our politicians and leave them weak-kneed in implementing the requisite policy measures to reverse the sharp annual increases in crime and violence.

Think about the projected attributes of these groups: caring; compassionate; peace-loving; protective of individual rights, freedom, and privacy; a defense of the underdog; and a commitment to justice and to the principle that it is better 100 guilty persons go free than one innocent individual should suffer.

With that mindset it is understandable that this group can't stomach the idea of paramilitary initiatives as they have images of well armed security forces, sanctioned by the state, pitted against defenseless citizens. With that image, irrespective of the crime wave and hot spots of criminal activity, citizens will get their support every time, not the police.

It is surprising how the arts - whether the performing, visual, or fine arts - sometimes anticipate the future by offering signals which we should heed. Last Sunday, the National Gallery of Jamaica, as is its custom, invited the revivalist group Nexus to perform. There was such purity, poetry, and piety, in the group's presentation of song and dance, and its leader Hugh Douse, in a very imaginative, inspiring, and hopefully, prophetic way, used several of the Gallery's paintings and sculptures as narrative to inform who we are and who we could become.

It was instructive that Douse in wishing that 2018 would be a better year, highlighted two paintings - Karl Parboosingh's 1965 work entitled, 'Industrial Abstraction'; and a painting of Constable Mark Haughton (Sleepy) by street artist Vermont Grant (Howie).

Douse wished that the conversation from Parboosingh's painting could be a harbinger of a meaningful turnaround in the economy, where hard work, discipline, and a belief in self, would drive higher levels of industrial activity.

Artist Vermont Grant persuaded his best friend Mark from boyhood days in Spanish Town to become a policeman. Haughton was killed in the line of duty. Grant's painting was a panacea to cope with grief. The artist felt personally responsible for his friend's death.

"We have to get serious with crime", proclaimed the Nexus leader. "You have to rule your yard. It has to be tough love. Some of the criminals out there are bad. And in that war on crime and violence, remember to treat our police in that special kind of way. We can't repeat last year."

The revivalist, though hopeful, feels the pain, hence the group's song of sadness, "sometimes I feel like a motherless child".

Mr PM, there are too many motherless and fatherless out there. Together with your ministers of national security, and justice, and the commissioner, you know the tough choices that must be made to reduce crime sharply this year, and that proposed draft legislation for a police makeover in 2018 has to be a non-starter.

After just nearly three days in the new year, eight people had already been killed. Whether you have the gumption to buck an influential and articulate coalition of conscience, we'll see.

We'll also see by Jamaica's performance on the crime front whether your election promise about safety for your citizens was for real and whether you agree with the late Lee Kuan Yew that circumstances do not shape events, its leaders with vision and courage that do.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com