Tue | Apr 7, 2020

Solving Jamaica's problem of violence

Published:Tuesday | March 8, 2016 | 1:05 AM

Professor Anthony Clayton, Contributor

There are about 450,000 homicides in the world each year, over ten times more than the number being killed in the war in Syria. Half of all these homicides occur in just 20 countries, all of them in the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa, with just 10 per cent of world population. These countries are the epicentre of world violence, and Jamaica is one of the most violent countries in this group.

The global cost of violence is about US$9.5 trillion a year, some 11 per cent of world GDP. These costs are also concentrated in the same 20 countries. Jamaica has had a high level of violent crime for over four decades. Largely as a result, the economy of Jamaica is now, at best, one-third of the size it should have been; it may be only one-tenth of the size it could have been.

In the rest of the world, however, violence has been declining for decades. The number of homicides in the US in 2013 was lower than in the 1960s; the number in Japan in 2013 was the lowest since the war, while in England the level of violence has fallen by 66 per cent since 1995. If these trends continue, the global level of non-conflict violence will be halved over the next three decades. This raises questions as to why the levels of violence remain high in one small group of nations, while the rest are becoming more peaceful.

There is a small group of factors that appear to account for most of the difference between violent and peaceful countries. The violent countries tend to have similar weaknesses, and the ones that are becoming more peaceful have similar strengths (or have made similar reforms).

Multiple failures

High levels of violence are always the result of multiple failures and weaknesses at many levels of society. Most of the violent countries have weak or corrupt governance, poorly-performing economies, and incompetent or compromised institutions (especially with regard to policing and justice) that are not trusted by the people. There are opportunities to make significant profits from crimes such as extortion, fraud, or trafficking narcotics and weapons, and the risk that criminals will be arrested and successfully prosecuted is low. Many politicians and other leading members of society are venal and self-serving. In these circumstances, many people have recourse to violence to settle their disputes, rather than the law.

The countries with falling levels of violence are those that have made progress with regard to social control (including better urban planning with regard to public spaces and transport, improved street lighting, stronger security systems for buildings and vehicles, more CCTV cameras, and the replacement of cash by electronic transactions); social leadership, where influential members of society emphasise honesty, civility and respect; the effective rule of law, with transparent and accountable public institutions that can be trusted by the public, and have the will and the capacity to eliminate corruption, especially among public officials; and evidence-based policing, where systematic reviews of police strategy, tactics and organisation are used to ensure that resources remain focused on reducing the most damaging forms of crime, often with an emphasis on preventative policing and early intervention.

A strategy to transform a violent society therefore has to simultaneously resolve the weaknesses associated with violence and poverty, and develop the strengths associated with peace and prosperity.

Progress to date

Although Jamaica is still one of the most violent countries in the world, it is also clear that the nation has started a remarkable transformation. Between 2009 and 2014, the homicide rate fell by 35 per cent, largely as a result of the fall in the level of crime-related homicides, which means that the decline was primarily the result of changes in police strategies and tactics that helped to disrupt organised crime, dismantle gangs and prevent robberies, and other measures to resolve conflicts and reduce the level of violence.

The transformation started in May 2010, with the normalisation of Tivoli and the subsequent extradition of Christopher Coke. This significantly degraded the most powerful criminal organisation in Jamaica, demoralised remaining gangs, and resulted in the killing or arrest of many of the main violence-producers in Jamaica. Most of the decline in the homicide rate occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Tivoli operation, i.e., between 2010 and 2011. There was an immediate 37 per cent fall in the number of homicides from the 2009 peak, the equivalent of 621 fewer deaths, which is over eight times more than died in Tivoli in May 2010.

The priority at that time was on ways to maintain the downward momentum. Initially, the focus was on traditional crime control measures, so the number of curfews, for example, increased from about 2,000 in 2011 to 6-7,000 per year in 2012 and 2013.

That approach did not, however, address the underlying causes of crime, which include broken families and social decay; neglected and abused children, with early exposure to violence; the erosion of moral authority by entrenched systems of political corruption and patronage, links between politics and organised crime, and the influence of gang-dominated garrison communities and informal settlements, with bad housing, poor education and limited job opportunities. Most of the violence today is domestic or gang-related, but these are still the products of decades of corruption which have crippled Jamaica’s development. Many large-scale government investments and development projects have resulted in no measurable economic benefit, largely because so much of the money has been misappropriated or channelled through networks of patronage. This has left many communities starved of the basic infrastructure – good schools, clinics, parks and transport links – that would have helped them escape poverty.

As a result, it became clear that the orthodox approach alone could not succeed. It was costly, and had passed the point of diminishing returns; tripling the number of curfews had only a modest effect on the level of violence. So the emphasis then shifted to a deeper analysis of the causes of crime, and a greater emphasis on resolving the underlying problems and preventing criminality, rather than just responding to crimes. These approaches are not alternatives, but complementary; it is necessary to deal resolutely with crime while simultaneously resolving the causes of crime in order to bring about a permanent transition to a peaceful and orderly society. This combination requires a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral approach; the police and the security forces play an indispensable role, but they alone cannot solve all the social, economic, political, psychological and cultural problems in a society.

The new approach was reflected in an increased emphasis on proximity policing, the deployment of violence interrupters, the Unite for Change initiative and the End Violence Project. The first two represented a more preventative approach, with early interventions to stop feuds, reprisal killings and other factors that could trigger rapid escalations in the level of violence; the latter were based on the public health model of violence prevention, and were aimed at changing social norms to reduce the tolerance of violent and criminal behaviour and challenging the misplaced codes of loyalty and silence that protect vicious criminals. There was also an increased emphasis on rehabilitation in the correctional facilities, with inmates learning trades to help them earn an honest living after release, with the goal of reducing the rate of re-offending and thereby reducing the pressure on the police and the prison system.

New approach

The new approach required significantly different police behaviour and tactics, as the key is to win the hearts and minds of the people. This means that the people must come to see the police as their friends and protectors, and the gangs as predators, rather than the other way round. Some communities in Jamaica had only seen paramilitary incursions, rather than normal policing, so it was understandable that they did not immediately see the police as their protectors and allies. It was important, therefore, to emphasise proximity policing, with police officers in normal ‘red seam’ rather than paramilitary ‘blue denim’ uniforms embedded in the community, carrying out slow patrols on foot, getting to know and understand the residents and developing relationships of trust with them. It also required issuing new guidelines to officers to avoid making arrests for minor offences (such as smoking ganja), making officers more accountable for the use of force, and improving the planning of operations to minimise the likelihood of casualties.

The new approach also required a new emphasis on community involvement, in meetings and events that brought police and citizens together, a constant effort to encourage changes in perceptions and behaviour with media campaigns, and new partnerships with NGOs, churches and the private sector to educate and improve the lives of the people, especially in the most troubled communities.

Need to reallocate resources

The new approach also required a reallocation of resources, which had to be reassigned from traditional policing into the preventative, proximity-based approach. Previously, over 95 per cent of total resources were assigned to crime control, with less than 5 per cent to all forms of social intervention, so this ratio had to be adjusted. In addition, the two tracks, which had previously operated relatively independently, were more closely coordinated in order to maximise the impact.

These changes were supplemented with screening and other measures to remove corrupt officers from the JCF, the recruitment of more qualified people to the force, better training, especially with regard to non-lethal options and the appropriate use of force, and a new emphasis on intelligence-led ‘smart’ policing rather than the rough justice and punitive approach of the past.

Another key reform was the passage of a number of laws, including the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) 2014 Act (Anti-Gang), the Law Reform (Fraudulent Transactions) (Special Provisions) Act 2013 (Anti-Lottery Scam), the Deoxyribonucleic Acid Evidence Act, 2015, the Amendment to POCA (Asset Forfeiture and Cash transaction limit) and the Maritime Drug Trafficking (Suppression) Act 2015, which started to make it more difficult for criminals to escape justice.

There has always been particular resistance to effective anti-corruption measures, because the power and influence of some of the major beneficiaries of corruption has allowed them to block the necessary reforms. Recently, however, the amendments to POCA that extended the reporting obligations of non-financial institutions and the criminalisation of cash transactions above J$1million, supported by the establishment of MOCA and an effective contractor general, have started to made it harder to misappropriate public funds and launder the proceeds of crime. These measures contributed to the recent improvement in Jamaica’s score on the Corruption Prevention Index scale; the first improvement in many years.

These laws are all recent additions, some of them are not yet being applied consistently, while others are still being tested in court, but it is clear that major loopholes are being closed, that life will start to become more difficult for criminals, and that our laws are finally being strengthened.

The level of killings has continued to decline, albeit more slowly, since the adoption of the new approach.  Between 2013 and 2014, the national rate of homicides fell by 16 per cent, shootings by 12 per cent, rape by 23 per cent, aggravated assault by 17 per cent and thefts by 10.5 per cent, with some of the largest reductions occurring in the toughest police divisions. Murders in St Andrew Central fell by 40 per cent, St Andrew South by 39 per cent, and Kingston West by 22 per cent.

At the same time, the number of fatal shootings by police officers fell by 54 per cent, there was a 19 per cent reduction in arrests (mainly because officers were no longer making arrests for various minor offences), which helped to reduce the number in police lockups by 25 per cent, and curfews became unnecessary. It is clear, therefore, that the police are becoming more effective and making less use of lethal force, which has started to transform the relationship between the police and the people.

These results indicate that the new approach is starting to effect genuine and long-lasting change. The direction is clear; the goal is to get to the point where policing is primarily preventative, rather than reactive. In order to get there, it is essential to lower the level of violence and other forms of crime to the point where the police are no longer faced with an overwhelming array of problems. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to go through a process of cultural re-engineering, so that violence is no longer seen as normal, criminals are no longer seen as role models, and the people of Jamaica can have faith in law, order and justice. It is equally essential to target the facilitators of crime; the corrupt officials who channel public funds to criminals, and the lawyers, accountants and business people who assist them to launder the proceeds of crime, so that the criminal networks are starved of the cash that they need to survive.

Will take time

However, it will still take years before the changes are permanent. Many of the communities are still inherently fragile; many violent criminals are still at large; there is a deep legacy of decades of social and psychological damage to overcome; there are still serious weaknesses in the system of justice to be resolved; and crime and corruption still impose horrifying costs on Jamaica. The aim now must be to consolidate the gains made to date, increase the rate of progress and bring about a permanent transition to a peaceful and prosperous society. This will require four further reforms; improving the efficiency and effectiveness of policing; engaging civil society and the private sector in the task of normalising all the remaining garrison communities; eradicating corruption and patronage (especially in public procurement) and ensuring that no-one with connections to organised crime can serve as a public official or tender on a public works contract; and using the Proceeds of Crime Act to take back stolen assets from the criminals and from the people who help the criminals to launder their cash.

If the new administration builds on the progress made in recent years, and has the will to drive through the remaining reforms, then Jamaica will be free, at last, of its most intolerable, ruinous and deadly burden; crime and corruption.