Tue | Aug 4, 2020

Tarik Weekes | ZOSO must be corrective for August Town and surrounding communities

Published:Thursday | July 30, 2020 | 12:16 AM
Members of the security forces at a zone of special operation checkpoint in August Town, St Andrew, on July 8.
Members of the security forces at a zone of special operation checkpoint in August Town, St Andrew, on July 8.

For some years, August Town has benefited from social and law-enforcement interventions. Now, intervening for violence and crime reduction will benefit from strengthened coordination under the zone of special operation (ZOSO), a joint police-military, social and area-based intervention. Below are a few thoughts on any approach to this area, based on two studies completed between 2017 and 2019. One study involving The University of the West Indies (UWI) Township Project focused on the use of community football in violence prevention, and the other, spearheaded in Jamaica by the Violence Prevention Alliance, focused on the construction of safer spaces. August Town proper was among the sites in both studies.

August Town proper is part of a wider conflict geography that includes Hermitage, Bedward Gardens, African Garden and Goldsmith Villa. These areas, together under a social development framework, are referred to as Greater August Town (GAT). ‘August Town’ is often used loosely to speak to all of these communities, one of which has had its residents protest against this practice. The entire August Town proper is not enveloped in homicides and shootings.

Consultation with residents, troublesome youth and police-reported data indicate that these two crimes occur most frequently only in certain sections of the community. Residents have labelled these areas as places you cannot go due to the presence of offenders and the spontaneous eruption of violence. In these areas, offenders are part of a similarly situated status. They have been unemployed for more than six months, currently looking for work, and have none to low levels of certification.

TAILOR INTERVENTION PROGRAMMES

The attention now given to Greater August Town should consider profiles of the most active, persistent and chronic offenders. Among youth residents 15-24 years old in the community, this group is less than six per cent of this subpopulation and are involved in a range of offences, from shooting and homicide to sexual assault. These young people are part of durable street gangs that have become less conspicuous over the years, due to inter- and intra-gang conflict and leadership ideological changes, among other factors. They have remained durable because of criminal learning passed down through generations, the ability of older gang members to evade criminal detection and prosecution, and the gangs’ own organisational memory.

Of the five types of street gangs commonly referred to by gang researchers, August Town proper has two. The street gang with multigenerational membership, existing for decades, is the most dominant form. Members are preadolescents and above 35 years old. This gang has elements of organisation, such as an identifiable leader(s), and regulates offending by members. The second street gang form is disorganised, can be spontaneously created, and caused by splintering and reorganisation.

Members are like-minded, however, at different points in time. They may also offend independent of the collective. Both forms have school-going and out-of-school youth. It is vital that implementers know what these forms indicate. First, offenders show both a rational and impulsive tendency in August Town proper, and, therefore, offending behaviour is governed by thresholds and situations.

Second, interventions have to be guided by data. These data sources include: arrest history, violence-related injuries, calls for service, violence interruption, potential shootings data and offender scripting. The zone of special operation in the immediate and medium-term has to support the harmonisation of data for crime-fighting. Membership in a street gang is not a homogeneous experience. This is recognised globally, and certainly obtains in Jamaica and August Town proper.

People who join street gangs do so at different points in their lives and leave at different points. Some are also more embedded than others. This presents an opportunity for intervention because, while gang involvement breaks patterns of prosocial influence in favour of criminal definitions and behaviour, gang members have multiple identities and are capable of holding on to these.

Indeed, members in gangs maintain weak and strong ties. For some youth in parts of August Town, ties are maintained with violent, troublesome adolescents for the sole reason of protection. Youth also come together to protect each other. Interventions in August Town proper, due to the long-standing delinquency and gang problem, have to correct the imbalances in pro- and antisocial definitions through the promotion of programmes (not projects) that have evidence for prosocial behavioural outcomes. Focused deterrence is needed to prevent the dilution of violence- and crime-control gains.

Where focused deterrence is combined with effective police surveillance strategies, crime displacement is expected to be small and the crime-control diffusion of benefits greater. Systematic reviews of focused deterrence application in different settings support its contribution to a reduction in crime. Interventions to reduce person-based offences by street gangs will not be reduced if criminal impunity by those with a long, violent offending course is not intercepted.

The removal of career criminals, and those of earlier position in their criminal course trajectory who have not been brought to justice, is dire. At community meetings, victims or their loved ones have to be among those offenders who may attend these meetings. A restorative point sensitive to the voice of victims have been overlooked and/or certainly not been given enough attention. The victims represent a grieving group in the community’s population, and the resulting low trust breeds disharmony in the community. Sexual violence is a sore point in sections of the community. Victims have been forced out of the community or have had their cases brought before a community court.

Based on the age of onset for offenders, the fluidity of offenders in co-offending and gang involvement and the durability of gangs, those interested in a turning point for the community have to additionally consider:

1. Interventions with a theory of change. Training for interested residents and stakeholders may be required.

2. Interventions that improve child management, academic performance, reduce the likelihood of aggression and violence in early adolescence and arrests.

3. Interventions that target active gang and non-gang offenders but are also sustainable. Interventions that start and stop, strengthen gang organisation.

4. Intervention to reduce sexual violence.

5. Employability does not mean violent offending will stop among persistent and chronic offenders.

Tarik Weekes is an academic researcher for Community Voices and Initiatives for Building Safer Spaces in Jamaica, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala. Observatory for Human Security, Medellin. Research Fellow, Institute of Criminal Justice and Security, The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to tarikweekes@gmail.com.