Mark Ricketts | The commissioner and crime
"No country can sustain in idleness more than a small percentage of its numbers."
- President Abraham Lincoln
Crime and violence stalks the land and has driven fear into most Jamaicans. The response is to draw on facts that at times, are unsubstantiated or posit quick and seemingly easy solutions. But dealing with crime is tough and complex, especially in Jamaica, where social disorder complicates things.
To add perspective on whether we are making any progress on coming to grips with what appears to be an intractable problem, I thought I would go to the head of the stream and hear what the commissioner of police, Dr Carl Williams, is saying and doing.
In every respect, Dr Williams exudes the air of the proper gentleman: tall, erect, personable, polite, and soft-spoken. A PhD in criminal justice, his academic underpinning adds weight to his observations and analysis and induces attentiveness on the part of listeners.
But being proper and polite should in no way equate with not being tough and hard-nosed. In fact, the commissioner is no-nonsense, and in his 30 years in the force, he has seen and done it all - from managing stations and entire divisions to more cerebral work in pursuing serious organised crime bosses and international narcotics kingpins.
In a very assertive fashion, he lay down this principle in an interview with me: "We have to do what we do as police. We are trained to outsmart the criminals so that we can stop them in their quest to carry out wrongful acts and harm the innocent. There is no substitute for hard, smart, policing and police work. We can't renege on the mandate to catch the criminals, preferably, before they are successful in committing crime."
Restating his position to make, as Shakespeare said, "assurance doubly sure," Dr Williams remarked: "We must find criminals who commit crimes, and We must take a stand in places where crimes are committed. The motives for crime exist in the minds of persons, but motives can only be expressed or acted on when persons are given the opportunity. The police have to try to be everywhere to foreclose and reduce the opportunities, thereby preventing crime. Where we are unable to prevent crimes, we must be able to capture the suspects speedily and make them account for their evil deeds.That is what I and the entire Jamaica Constabulary Force are all about."
The constabulary, Dr Williams argues, has made remarkable progress in fighting crime generally, but it has all been overshadowed by high levels of murder and other forms of violence. "The public might not be fully aware of some of our successes, but it should be noted that all major crimes, except murder, have been in decline over the last five years. We arrested over 700 murder suspects during the course of last year, and, in the process, cleared up over 600 murder cases, the largest number of alleged murderers and the highest percentage of murder cases cleared up in any year in the history of our country.
"In the past year, we also confiscated over 600 illegal firearms which, no doubt, would have been available to contribute to even greater levels of gun violence. All of this has been accomplished while the levels of fatal shootings by the police have declined by over 50 per cent in less than two years."
Dr Williams argues that one of the difficulties in combating crime has to do with the fact that we are only treating the symptoms and not the causes. He contends that we are more focused on the offender than on the circumstances that led to his or her creation.
"It is so much easier to stop the flow of the river at the river head than in the delta just before it enters the sea. Our approach to crime fighting hardly takes account of the deterioration in social conditions at the community level, and as such, one set of criminals is arrested or killed only to be replaced by another."
To the commissioner, it is necessary for the society to understand that crime is a social phenomenon, which stems from social dysfunctions within the society. The main institutions of socialisation - the family, the school, the Church, and the community at large - have not worked as well as they did in the past to produce functional citizens. The deterioration in values, the development of negative attitudes, and the coarse, aggressive and uncivil behaviours have been at the heart of the violence we experience every day. "Surely, this is not a job for the police by ourselves," Dr Williams asserts.
Using a real-life example to underscore his point he makes reference to a recent drive through the country. "Driving through a depressed community in Westmoreland recently at midday or so, I saw several groups of men, young men, old men, just standing, some sitting, looking out to nowhere; others under trees playing Ludo or dominoes. There were teenage girls and other young women, pregnant with child, carrying a baby in one arm and another child, knee-high, hitched to the mother's leg.
"The laughter from those playing board games or from a few men hanging out outside a bar contrasts with the silence of people standing or sitting around looking out to nowhere; all these people, hanging around idly in broad daylight. Apparently, they had no jobs or job opportunities. A few might work at night or survive by remittances, but there are fartoo many people idle in too many communities all over Jamaica.
"If, as the saying goes, the devil finds work for idle hands, then that certainly explains the apparent natural gravitation of idle youths to gangs. With so many idle youths around, there is no shortage of recruits for the approximately 300 gangs that are active in Jamaica today."
He emphasised his implied outrage by adding that there are too many communities with stagnant water, zinc fences, electricity being stolen, squalid and subhuman conditions, and anger and aggression on edge.
"Too many built environments were not put together with policing in mind. There are far too many unregulated settlements with no security for the residence or for the residents inside, clearly not built to facilitate policing. There are narrow walkways on captured lands and little trap doors in zinc fences (trappies).
"The 'trappies' and interlinkages between many of these communities means that a criminal on the run could literally traverse the city from community to community without hardly going on the public road. As police, we operate mostly on the roads and require access to homes and neighbourhoods. The narrow laneways pose a challenge to police.
"This is but one of the social dysfunctions in how our society and the communities are structured. It supports the people in their opposition to social order in our society, and this manifests itself in people with a penchant to oppose the rule of law; in people who subscribe to a culture that is violent, which leads, inexorably, to a subculture that worships guns and becomes bent on killing people and shedding blood."
In acknowledging our terrible social conditions, Dr Williams has to grapple with the magnitude of the problem, and many times, has to call on our specially trained police in combination with our soldiers.
But the commissioner, in spite of articulating concerns about social dysfunction in the society, is committed, along with the entire police force, to putting a serious dent in crime and violence. The second part of this two-part series with the commissioner will continue next week.
- Mark Ricketts, economist, author and lecturer living in California, was chief economist of the Vancouver Board of Trade in Canada: deputy chairman of the Jamaica Stock Exchange; and assistant editor of the 'Financial Post', Canada's largest financial weekly newspaper. Email feedback to columns@
gleanerjm.com and email@example.com