Wed | Oct 16, 2019

Editorial | Being cautious over the state of emergency

Published:Friday | July 20, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The extrapolations from Prime Minister Andrew Holness' data, and the police's actual murder figures, on the face of it, differ a bit.

According to the prime minister, in the period since the declaration of a state of public emergency in St James, that is, the 170 days from January 18 to July 7, there was an average of 3.44 homicides daily, compared to 4.65 for the corresponding period in 2017. The extrapolation from this is that there were 584 murders in Jamaica during the period covered by the prime minister, against 790 over the same period a year earlier. This would represent 206 fewer killings nationally, or a 26 per cent decline in homicides against the comparative period in 2017.

The police, on the other hand, say, in their data for January 1 to July 14 - or 24 days more than the prime minister suggested were covered by his figures, in Parliament this week - that there were 706 homicides. That's a drop of 107, or 13 per cent fewer murders, than during the comparative period last year.

In other words, on the basis of the extrapolation from the prime minister's figures, an additional 122 homicides happened over the 24 days for which he did not account. That is probably part of the explanation for the disparity between the 13 per cent actual decline in murders, based on the official crime statistics, and the 26 per cent implied in Mr Holness' data.

That 50 per cent differential, though, ought not to be a point of too much contention. For, the larger picture is that the homicide figures, as Mr Holness pointed out, are heading in the right direction, even though there is still a long way to go. For this, Mr Holness and his administration, as do most Jamaicans, credit the state of emergency, whose imposition has been extended by the House for another three months.

Understandably, the state of emergency is politically and socially popular, making its fraught to question its use as an instrument of crime- fighting. In 2017, there were 335 murders in St James, for a homicide rate of approximately 180 per 100,000. That was three times the national average in a country with one of the world's highest murder rates.

The 53 murders in the parish at the police's latest reporting period would still be, in some jurisdictions, be astonishingly high. Yet, that is 66 per cent lower than the corresponding period in 2017. The momentum from St James, it is felt, has carried through to other regions of Jamaica, notwithstanding upward ticks in homicides in some places.


Word of Caution


Our note of caution is that a state of public emergency is a blunt instrument contemplated by the Constitution for circumstances when the security and safety of the country, and its citizens, face dire threats. Its use allows for the suspension of individual rights and freedoms that are bedrocks of liberal democracies. That is why their initial declarations are limited to short periods and their extensions require super majorities by legislators.

By the time the current extension of the St James emergency expires, it would have been in place for nine months, and some people will consider its use a policing norm. Therein lies the danger of it luring us into false notions of policing and easing pressure on the constabulary to transform itself into a modern, professional and efficient organisation, capable of policing by consent and solving crime. While there are no claims of the security forces abusing the extraordinary powers afforded them by the state of emergency, there is the potential for a creeping acceptance of these powers as inherent authority and the corresponding erosion of citizens' rights.

Critical for analysis, therefore, must be of what percentage of the decline in murders is the result of the displacement of criminals because of the increased presence of the security forces in communities - which doesn't require the declaration of a state of emergency - as opposed to their exercise of extraordinary powers. Further, at what point may citizens lose their awe for the authority that the declaration of a state of emergency evokes?