Fri | Jul 19, 2019

‘Now, I can sleep in peace’ - Murder rate plunges in Westmoreland as army, police crush violent crime

Published:Friday | May 31, 2019 | 12:26 AMAdrian Frater/News Editor
A soldier conducts a search of a vehicle at a checkpoint in Whitehouse, Westmoreland, which is one of three parishes, including Hanover and St James, under a state of public emergency. The security measure restricts personal freedom and grants extraordinary powers to soldiers and the police.
A soldier conducts a search of a vehicle at a checkpoint in Whitehouse, Westmoreland, which is one of three parishes, including Hanover and St James, under a state of public emergency. The security measure restricts personal freedom and grants extraordinary powers to soldiers and the police.

WESTERN BUREAU:

Following a bloody start to the year, during which Westmoreland recorded 34 murders between January and March, divisional police can now breathe a sigh of relief as the ongoing state of public emergency (SOE) has driven down homicides.

According to the parish’s commanding officer, Superintendent Gary McKenzie, there has been a substantial reduction in the murders and shootings, with Westmoreland recording the highest per capita murders of 29 per 100,000.

There has been one shooting and no murders since the SOE was imposed.

The three-parish state of emergency was enforced on April 30 in the western arc of Jamaica, blanketing Hanover and St James as well.

“We have so far seen substantial reductions in murders and shootings, we have recovered a number of firearms and ammunition, and we have made a number of arrests, including arrests for serious crimes. It is very important to note that we have also been able to arrest and charge a number of wanted men,” McKenzie told The Gleaner.

McKenzie’s optimism is shared by Savanna-la-Mar Mayor Bertel Moore, who said he has observed success from the crime-fighting initiative led by both the military and the police.

“Based on the feedback I have been getting, I am fairly satisfied that the SOE is working and is helping to reduce crime and violence in Westmoreland,” said Moore, who is chairman of the Westmoreland Municipal Corporation.

Moore said that initial concerns about the earlier closing hours imposed by the security forces have faded as the business community’s confidence has risen amid enhanced safety.

In Bethel Town, which was exploding with murders ahead of the SOE, as rival gangsters battled for spoils of the illicit lottery scam and turf, residents are expressing relief that the guns have gone silent and the gangsters have apparently taken flight.

“For months, I dread going to bed at nights because I have trouble sleeping whenever I hear the gunshots. I was also too scared to go to my church at nights,” a Bethel Town resident told The Gleaner on Tuesday. “Now, I can sleep in peace because the soldiers are here. I just hope they will find all the guns before they leave.”

With the breathing space created by the SOE intervention, the Westmoreland police are now tackling general disorder under an initiative dubbed ‘Sustainable Public Safety and Public Order’, which is aimed at stamping out electricity theft, illegal vending, and traffic infractions. The mobilisation for public order mirrors a similar initiative launched by the St James police and municipal authorities.

“We will be working alongside the Island Traffic Authority, the Jamaica Public Service, the Ministry of Health, and other agencies to bring general order to the parish,” said McKenzie. “We want Westmoreland to be an orderly parish, where residents can go about their business safely.”

In 2018, when St James underwent a yearlong state of emergency, Westmoreland became the murder capital of the west with 141 murders, which was only surpassed by St Andrew South (148).

adrian.frater@gleanerjm.com