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Andre Wright | Beyond the state of emergency

Published:Thursday | December 13, 2018 | 12:00 AMAndre Wright/Opinion Editor
Members of the Jamaica Defence Force and the Jamaica Constabulary Force doing a spot check on Greenwich Road in Kingston after Prime Minister, Andrew Holness announced a state of emergency in sections of the Corporate Area covering the St Andrew Central, St Andrew South and Kingston Western police divisions on Sunday, September 23, 2018.

It's tempting to join in the knee-jerk lament about the apocalyptic ramifications of the imminent lapse of states of emergency in St James, St Catherine North, and sections of the Corporate Area. Don't.

What has fundamentally curbed homicides and shootings is the significant increase in police presence in vulnerable communities which have for decades ceded power and space to extortionists, badmen and imperial dons. The police force's retreat from the streets created a vacuum which sucked in gods of war.

A state of emergency is not a crime plan and should not be used, in perpetuity, as a substitute for a medium- or long-term strategy of suppressing murders. Maintaining emergency powers for nearly a year dulls the sting of a crucial and terminal weapon of law and order that should be used surgically. Currently, states of emergency do not drive bone-chilling fear into gangsters.

As former army chief and ex-top cop Hardley Lewin said in a letter to the editor published January 22, 2018, "a state of emergency should send "shivers down the spines" of criminals. Here's more from Lewin:

"A state of emergency is the ultimate tool in the law enforcers' toolbox. When taken from its box, it must be used for the shortest time possible and must be a first step in a bigger overall plan. ... But a state of emergency is supposed to signal that when declared, things are serious and it cannot be business as usual. ... We must resist the temptation to pull this tool even when urged to do so by popular opinion. We cannot run the risk of having our state of emergency turning into a farce."

There have been welcome positives from the security crackdown. In 2018, we've seen a 21.7 per cent islandwide reduction in murder year-on-year. The security forces must also be praised for slashing St James homicides by 70 per cent in 2018, a massive drop from the record homicides of 336 in 2017.

But though law enforcers have, for now, displaced and disrupted the power dynamic, the states of emergency have not dealt a body blow to the criminal underworld. A smattering of detainees have been charged with serious crimes. And what's worse, they haven't been defanged. There has been a significant decline in the seizure of guns in 2018, even with the immense powers of a state of emergency. For the period January 1, 2018 to December 1, 2018, there has been a 16 per cent drop in gun seizures from 807 to 676, and ammunition finds have plummeted 50 per cent from 21,235 to 10,639.

So the gunmen are still sitting on their arsenal of firepower, waiting out the security forces who, perhaps, need greater intelligence and other tools to locate the cache of guns buried under cellars, in fowl coops, under floor boards, or hidden above gypsum ceilings.

Police Commissioner Antony Anderson, the former army chief and crime czar, is now compelled to fashion a suite of strategies that go beyond resting on the convenient crutch of a state of emergency.

In a December 2, 2018, guest column published in this newspaper, General Anderson argued, "The conditions of an SOE allow for our deployed officers to be more effective, as time limits are imposed on movements, and it allows for the detention of persons who are known to be violent disruptive elements in the community."

 

SUFFICIENTLY EMPOWERED

 

But the commissioner is aware that the security forces are sufficiently empowered to launch search-and-cordon operations, as well as limit movement with curfews, man vehicle checkpoints, and enable the net-fishing (unnu jump up inna di truck) detention expeditions.

Yesterday's waffle by the prime minister's PR point man, Robert Morgan, about normal policing having not worked in the past is a piece of anti-intellectual sophistry that masks the truth. Mr Morgan should be aware that Jamaica has never pursued a policy of sustained, high-volume policing beyond weeks or a few months.

Prime Minister Holness, despite talking up the SOE model of "all my security forces working together" and "auxiliary to the police", knows that joint security arrangements are just as potent if utilised with a high-volume concentration of manpower.

Peter Phillips made a big gamble that may cost him politically. And yes, I agree with the PM that the Opposition was being "hypocritical" and "opportunistic". But media hounds prancing on their soapboxes about the efficacy of the states of emergency should engage their brains and realise that it's the amassing of forces on the streets, with an imposing physical presence and huge psychological impact, that is driving criminals from public spaces. But we need more. The gains are levelling out.

The lapsing of three states of emergency, in and of itself, won't trigger a retreat of police and soldiers. And we can rest assured that the army and police chiefs won't sabotage the good work they've done to satisfy political whim.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.