Editorial | Corollary to an emergency
We can’t claim to be surprised at the Government’s declaration of a state of public emergency (SOE) in Jamaica’s westernmost parishes of St James, Hanover and Westmoreland, where homicides have been on the rise, and we have no doubt, either, that the measure will be popular. The prevailing sentiment is that such measures work in curtailing crime, and the Government has data to prove the point.
Yet, there are serious questions for the Government and security forces to answer about the crime-fighting strategies and whether SOEs are to become long-term accoutrements of the toolkit.
Indeed, in St James, where an SOE was in place for a year before it lapsed in January, having lost Opposition support, murders, in 2018, tumbled by 70 per cent to 102, compared to 341 the previous year. Even then, the parish’s homicide rate was approximately 123 per 100,000, or more than two and half times the national average.
Moreover, nationally, murders were down 22 per cent last year, to 1,287. St James apart, other notable contributions to the decline included the parish of St Catherine (21 per cent) and two sections of the capital, west Kingston (25 per cent) and St Andrew South (eight per cent), where SOEs were also in force.
The trend, however, has reversed since the collapse of the SOEs. The 410 murders across the island so far this year have surpassed the figures for the similar period last year. In St James, the 49 homicides since January is an increase of 70 per cent.
This data, on the face of it, is a compelling argument in favour of Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ move, which, at least for the next 14 days, allow wide powers to the security forces to search and detain persons, without recourse to the normal constitutional protections.
The popularity the measures will enjoy will create a dilemma for Peter Phillips’ People’s National Party (PNP) if the Government, as it is expected it will, seeks to extend them in two weeks’ time, which will require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.
The last time the Government sought to extend the SOEs, the Opposition, citing human rights concerns, voted against the measures and suffered a backlash. Up to 90 per cent of Jamaicans, opinion polls showed, disagreed with the PNP.
Nonetheless, the obvious gains of the SOEs, and the need to return to these measures, in our view, mask deeper failures, not the least of which is the planning and the capacity of the constabulary, as currently constituted, to organise itself into an effective crime-detection, crime-prevention and law-enforcement unit.
As we have made clear often, this newspaper hews closely to the protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms and believes that when they are allowed to be infringed upon, such as during SOEs, trespass should, in so far as possible, be minimal. And SOEs, in circumstances such as the one being used out west, should be employed with targeted precision.
In other words, the security forces, having done their homework and being armed with good intelligence, should know who they intend to detain and where to find them, rather than engaging in a trawling expedition. That exercise should be complete in days, rather than weeks, months and years. The police should also be in a position to, within a reasonable time, be able to proffer cases against arrested persons, rather than holding them in detention for prolonged periods without charge.
There has not been a full account by the authorities of the last SOEs, though human-rights institutions argue that less than five per cent of the hundreds of persons held during those operations were ever charged and that of those who were, the vast majority was for petty matters.
So while this SOE may temper the excess of homicides in the short term, in the absence of serious work, including an overhaul of the constabulary, we’ll soon be back at the old place, dripping in crime.