Wed | Nov 13, 2019

Editorial | Welcome anti-crime talks

Published:Friday | October 18, 2019 | 12:24 AM

It may be cynicism about the ability of the Government and political Opposition to effectively cooperate on anything why so little attention was apparently paid to Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ disclosure of talks between himself and Peter Phillips aimed at building a “consensus around a crime-fighting strategy”.

These discussions do not represent a silver bullet for solving Jamaica’s most pressing problem, but this newspaper is happy that they are on. For, not only are there question marks over the efficacy of the current strategy, which is primarily centred on rolling states of public emergency, the approach is potentially dangerous to the long-term health of the country’s democracy.

So, having broken the ice and begun the bipartisan engagement, the next step must be to broaden the talks to include a range of other stakeholders, building on the anti-crime summit Dr Phillips and his People’s National Party (PNP) hosted in June.

It is significant that Prime Minister Holness announced the bipartisan discussion, brokered by an unnamed civil-society group, as Parliament approved the extension for 90 days, until various dates in January, the existing states of emergency in the parishes of St James, Hanover and Westmoreland, in western Jamaica; and Clarendon and St Catherine in the south-central part of the island.

Even with a 22 per cent decline in homicides in 2018, including a 70 per cent drop in St James, more than 1,300 persons were murdered in Jamaica, for a homicide rate of around 47 per 100,000. That decline was attributed to the imposition of states of emergency in several communities, until they lapsed at the start of this year for a lack of parliamentary support from the Opposition.

Dr Phillips and his party took heavy political flak for their action when murders began to jump again, so it was hardly surprising they demurred, only tokenly, when the Government reimposed the measures, starting in April.

Our concern is Mr Holness’ suggestion, endorsed by his security minister, Horace Chang, that states of emergency are likely to be a long-term crime-fighting initiative for Jamaica.

“If we continue to use this strategy in a selective way, give ourselves five to seven years, bring our murder rate down to 16 per 100,000, we would then be in a position to now use conventional methods to maintain and reduce crime fully,” Mr Holness said in July.

While Jamaicans have largely come to equate states of emergency with heavy concentrations of police and soldiers in communities, which may be a visible deterrent to criminality, the measure represents a major encroachment on critical, constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms, especially the freedom from arbitrary detention and arrest and, when those freedoms are encroached upon for lawful reasons, the right to be taken before a court forthwith.

FUNCTIONING OF A LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

These rights, and those relating to freedom of expression, are fundamental to the functioning of a liberal democracy. Their long-term compromise or abatement carries the danger of normalising the erosion and creating apertures through which authoritarians can worm their way to ascendancy.

It matters little that the current Government may not abuse the powers afforded by a state of emergency if their use isn’t sparing and applied only in the most extreme of circumstances but come to be viewed as a regular tool of policy.

Further, the public has yet to receive from the security forces a deep analysis of their application of states of public emergency, and what element of the initiatives have had the greatest impact on crime reduction – the increased numbers of police or soldiers in communities, or the enhanced powers to detain people. The use of the former strategy doesn’t require the declaration of a state of emergency and the constitutional issue inherent therein.

Moreover, a state of emergency isn’t an effective substitute for an efficient, competent and uncorrupt police force, which Jamaica doesn’t have and hasn’t shown the grit to pursue.

Additionally, reversing crime and criminal violence will be a grinding, multidisciplinary effort that ought to be free of partisan gamesmanship. That is why the talks between Messrs Holness and Phillips are to be encouraged.

As an aid to this process, the PNP should release the full report from its own anti-crime summit.