Mon | Mar 30, 2020

Editorial | Lessons from states of emergency

Published:Tuesday | October 9, 2018 | 12:12 AM


The Government and the wider public are in danger of extracting the wrong, or not the most relevant, lesson from the success of a series of states of emergency in tamping down on crime in Jamaica. They assume that the gains are because of the powers to suppress rights. The more irresistible lesson, perhaps, is of the need to expand the constabulary.

Three of these states of emergency have been imposed so far in 2018. At the third week of September, Jamaica had recorded 953 homicides for the first 234 days of the year. That was 237, or 20 per cent, fewer than for the corresponding period in 2017.

Such statistics provided the impetus for Prime Minister Andrew Holness to have Governor General, Sir Patrick Allen sanction the third. The Government found it necessary, Mr Holness argued , to "use the extraordinary powers" provided by these arrangements "to address long-standing crime and public-order issues which have threatened lives ... and deprived citizens of their general rights to live peacefully".

To question the efficacy of, and the dangers inherent in, the long-term use of such emergency powers as a crime-fighting tool is, potentially, to invite ridicule, or a stern lecture, such as was received by Opposition Senator Donna Scott-Mottley from Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith last week, when Mrs Scott-Mottley warned against states of emergency becoming the normal process of law enforcement.

"My concern is that persons have so normalised the excessive state of violence ... that they do not recognise that the level and nature of criminal activity is so extensive that it endangers public safety," Mrs Johnson Smith retorted.

These arguments are, on the face of it, compelling. Murders are down 20 per cent. But while correlation between the states of emergency and the lower homicide rate, and of crime generally, is obvious, there is no definitive evidence of causation.

Up-to-date data were not immediately available. However, weeks ago when it was disclosed that more than 2,000 persons had been detained under the emergency powers, fewer than five per cent were being investigated for specific crimes, and only a handful of those appeared to have been for serious crimes, fewer still were crime bosses. In this respect, the states of emergency seem to be trawls rather than spearfishing.

While this does not suggest that there has been no value in arresting and detaining people, it would appear that the greater cause for the reduction of crime in these communities is the vast increase in the presence of security forces rather than extraordinary authority to limit constitutional rights.

As a policy intervention, a mere administrative order would have sufficed to get more soldiers and police in these communities. Therein lies the case for an accelerated expansion of the constabulary. The visual presence of officers acts as a deterrent to criminals.

With 12,000 police officers, Jamaica, with one of the world's worst homicides rates - last year it was nearly 65 per 100,000 - has among the lowest ratios of police to citizens in the Caribbean. At fewer than 450 police to 100,000 citizens, the island has around nine per cent fewer police per 100,000 citizens than Barbados. In St Kitts and Nevis, the ratio is double that of Jamaica, and in Bermuda, it is1.7 times.

The recent decline in murders has been most dramatic in St James, having fallen by 147, or 67 per cent, since January when compared to 2017. It is not known how many police officers are normally stationed in that parish, which has around seven per cent of Jamaica's population. If parishes were allocated police officers in direct ratio to their population, around 850 would be stationed in St James. The real figure is likely to be substantially lower. The perception, however, is that far more police and soldiers operate in the parish - sufficient to be visible and robustly go about their activities.