Wed | Oct 28, 2020

Editorial | Pivoting on crime stats is good for governance

Published:Sunday | October 18, 2020 | 12:12 AM

After years of attempting to frustrate public access to the data, the Government is doing the right thing by returning to the frequent, and scheduled, publication of Jamaica’s crime statistics. Last week, the figures for the period from the start of the year to October 10 were posted on the website of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

Over the review period, there were 1,000 homicides – the critical benchmark of the state of crime for Jamaicans – in the island. That was 16, or 1.6 per cent, fewer murders than for the same period in 2019. The national security minister, Horace Chang, promised that the statistics would be updated weekly.

“We have no interest in hiding the facts, because the facts are what will ensure that we can get the buy-in from the public, and they can also hold us accountable for what we are doing,” Chang told Parliament, in announcing the return to an automatic release of the data, during debate on extending the zone of special operations in Mount Salem, St James.

This decision is a pivot to transparency, which this newspaper hopes will apply to other facets of the Government’s policies and strategies for combating crime, and more broadly, to the administration’s approach to governance.

It wasn’t always the case that Jamaica’s crime statistics, except for year-end reports or when the police brass or government policymakers choose to dole them out, were restricted, if not classified, information. There were, indeed, the sporadic attempts by past police chiefs, and others in the High Command, to contain the flow of the data, but it never appeared to be enforced policy. If it was, the policy never fully stuck, although the police, long ago, stopped posting the information to their website.

SIGNIFICANT CHANGE

More recently, though, there was a significant change. Not only the press, but also opposition politicians complained about an increasing difficulty in prising timely crime data out of the police, apparently because the authorities feared that unmanaged raw data, especially on homicides, in the public’s hands would cause fear among citizens and be weaponised by the Opposition.

Even if these were legitimate concerns, the efficacy of the policy is highly doubtful. Jamaica’s high levels of crime – 1,300 murders a year – means that there is little shielding the public from this fact. In any event, the data, even if they emerged only in dribbles, became public anyway. More important, any sense that a government is being less than candid with basic information, which is fundamentally about the truth, undermines trust, thereby limiting its capacity for engagement with potential partners on any range of issues. Which, apparently, is what Dr Chang now recognises.

With respect to crime, the return to the regular and scheduled publication of the crime data, the readily available statistics, will enhance people’s ability to do timely analyses, which is good not only for “holding the Government accountable”. It opens the possibility to a richer, more robust debate, which often leads to better policies.

In this regard, the JCF should, in addition to publishing the crime statistics, also post on its website its strategic plans, performance targets, and quarterly reports of achievements. These should include its to-do list from the consensus document on crime signed in August by the Government, the Opposition, the private sector, and civil-society interests. That is one way of helping to build confidence in the constabulary’s willingness to transform itself into an institution that the public trusts.

In the meantime, the Government should extend the confidence-building move, as represented by the crime statistics pivot, by doing a volte-face on its controversial, and bad, decision to remove opposition members from the chairmanship of key parliamentary committees. Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in so doing, will build confidence in his post-election pledge to run a government that is honest and open.