Published: Sunday | November 15, 2009
When Owen Ellington joined the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) as a teenager in 1979, there were 351 murders that year. As he comes to the office of commissioner, the annualised murder figure for 2009 is 1,633, projected from the 1,361 murders committed up to October 31. Only 2005 was a worse year ever.
Hardley Lewin was pushed into resignation over the Government's loss of confidence in him as commissioner over the 'failure' to reverse the murder rate, something no commissioner of police has achieved in Independent Jamaica. Owen Ellington has come to the office of commissioner (acting) with "the reduction of crime, especially murder" at the top of his six-point list of strategic objectives.
The other objectives are:
2. The restoration of public safety and confidence
3. The upholding of human rights
4. The boosting of the morale and confidence of JCF members and auxiliaries
5. Effective confrontation of corruption among JCF members
6. Effective internal and external communication.
A nice, short, clear list of strategic objectives against which performance can be measured and accountability demanded. The trouble is that none of this is really new. You will find essentially the same terrain covered in the JCF Corporate Strategy and Citizen's Charter and in the pronouncements of commissioners past. And some of the objectives can come into sharp conflict with each other if not very carefully handled.
Confronting corruption in the JCF and boosting the morale of members could easily cancel out each other. Reducing crime while upholding human rights poses tough challenges.
But Ellington has a vision and strategic priorities. And a plan is unfolding. The acting commissioner comes to the top job from heading operations and the Crime Unit in the force and holds a master's degree in National security and strategic studies. What he can do with the men and women under his command is the big question. As Ellington told Gleaner reporter Howard Campbell, "It's not about me or any individual. It's about the Jamaica Constabulary Force and continuity in the delivery of service. There can be no gap in how we conduct our business."
And the business of the JCF is captured elegantly in its mission statement: "To protect, to serve, to reassure." People certainly don't feel protected. We don't think we are well served by the police. And there is little assurance of safety or of the availability of the police when needed. What we need is not continuity, but a sharp upswing in action towards mission achievement.
As the military man Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin could have advised Ellington, wars have to be fought - and won - with the people and resources available. And the fight against crime, certainly in Jamaica at this time is a war. "One of the new commissioner's biggest challenges," PSOJ president Joseph Matalon told The Gleaner, "will be the constraint on Government resources." If Owen Ellington is banking on the infusion of significant new resources from the Government for the success of his six-point strategic objectives, him done fail a'ready.
Much more can be achieved with the resources at hand, including the human resources. Contrary to popular belief, fed by chronic failure of the police, crime-reduction is not as hard as it seems. The police know this. So why am I taking coals to Newcastle? In the 22 years of writing this column, crime has been the most written about subject, as it has been the number-one matter of public concern. Talking about crime reduction, take murder for instance, if murder is highly patterned by location, by perpetrators, by victims and by reasons. The vast majority of the murders taking place in the country occur in well-known communities of Kingston and St Andrew, central and southern St Catherine, central and southern Clarendon, and central St James, in and around Montego Bay. Large-scale extortion is located in these very same zones. Why is it so difficult for the police to take intelligence-driven, pre-emptive focused action in these hot spots?
While people are quick to bawl out corruption and collusion, a far more significant managerial reason, in my view, is that nobody really owns the action and must account for it. The police force has one of the best regional structures of any public agency in the country, from areas and divisions down to the humble police station. Ellington must lead the devolution of operational targets from high command down to the local station, with powerful backative from the special units, if the crime reduction plan is going to work. Professional crime leaders, fewer than 1,000 young men in this country, must be caught and locked down on the basis of impeccable evidence painstakingly assembled or otherwise removed. The investigative capacity of the force is weak and directing some shooting capacity in this direction should help.
The police should begin the campaign for the restoration of public safety (and public order) by retaking the town centres and public spaces of this country from criminal and hooligan elements. Everywhere it has been implemented, the policing of quality of life laws and the prosecution of misdemeanours have seen the reduction of hard crimes. We have had many shooting units - and we need them.
zero tolerance needed
The former head of one is being touted for the job of commissioner and has indicated he will apply. But we also need zero tolerance squads that will police 'soft' crime. I am watching Ellington on this one. The Towns and Communities Act and allied legislation like the Noise Abatement Act are crying out for effective policing in the fight against crime. Saturation coverage is not necessary, only wide enough exemplary action backed by the surprise element.
There are some significant and highly controversial issues likely to hobble the roll out and achievement of Ellington's strategic objectives and these are more serious than "resource constraints". No police force can be run successfully like a plebiscitary democracy in which every constable and his union must be consulted before action can be taken. This has been a particularly dangerous trend in the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Ellington has started off on a broad-based consultative footing, which, if taken too far, will ensure his lack of success. Sorry, a serious police force, like an army, is by nature a command and control organisation. Consult where necessary, yes, but at the end of the day, someone gives orders and others carry them out. The ringing endorsement the Ellington appointment by internal associations should not be music to the acting commissioner's ear, as The Gleaner editorial warned last Thursday, November 12.
The power to dismiss rogue officers is seriously compromised by regulations overly weighted towards protecting jobs rather than reducing corruption and abuses in a security force which cannot be a 'normal' place of employment. Ellington must remember 'Never Never Land' and the re-enlistment lever while he awaits regulation changes which must come if the JCF is to be more effective in cleansing itself.
I am all for the fight against corruption and against human rights abuses by the police, but Acting Commissioner Ellington should be ultra-careful that the pursuit of this fight does not become viewed as demoralising witch-hunting by the men and women under his command. Some predecessors have erred in that direction. The commander-in-chief must be seen and known to support his officers in the discharge of their difficult and dangerous duties and to protect their interests while remaining respectful of the rights of citizens whom the police are sworn to protect.
A difficult balancing act which will severely test Ellington's leadership skills. Morale is more of a spin-off from doing other things right rather than a direct goal in itself. More than money, we know that challenge, opportunities, acknowledgement of performance, and reposing confidence in people are the greatest morale boosters.
The quality of the communication internally will be important for morale and goal achievement and externally for public confidence. The spin of the CCN is not very helpful now for inspiring public confidence. And the security of communication to the police will need great improvement
Sustained reduction of crime and violence is a multi-intervention, multi-agency matter in which the police have a clear, but limited role. The business of the police, pure and simple, is law enforcement within a framework of human rights and justice. The police force is not, and cannot be, a social development agency. If Ellington forgets these fundamentals, as the JCF has been wont to do, he will be in trouble and will not succeed in his real business.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.