'It's a death trap'
Policemen wary of traversing squatter settlements
Nedburn Thaffe, Gleaner Writer
With squatter communities spiralling out of control, the 'line of duty' has become increasingly risky for the thousands of policemen and women throughout the country charged with the responsibility to serve, protect and reassure the nation.
"It's a death trap. More time when you know seh you a go in some of these areas you have to make up your mind seh anything can happen," a constable attached to the East Kingston Police Mobile Reserve Unit shared with The Sunday Gleaner. The constable asked that his name not be used as he was not authorised to speak with the media.
According to data included in the 2011 Population and Housing Census, released in October, more than 600 households in Kingston were situated in squatter settlements, while St Andrew accounted for close to 6,000. With no formal structural outlay and many escape routes, it is commonly said that criminals use these communities as safe havens.
Traversing these communities is a nightmarish task that is capable of sending chills down the spines of even the most zealous crime fighter.
The constable with whom The Sunday Gleaner spoke said he has lived the reality on too many occasions, with the Mona Commons settlement in St Andrew and sections of Maxfield Avenue marked as some of the toughest in his book.
"A fi them geographical area, them understand it more than we. Going in sometime you can't even see the houses because the zinc fencing is as high as the houses. Things like these give them (criminals) the advantage over us," he said.
"From my experience, sometimes you find yourself open a gate thinking that it's one house in the yard only to realise seh a all four and five houses. Just imagine if you should come under attack at that moment when you are caught off guard," he lamented.
Strain on resources
National Security Minister Peter Bunting accepted that policing was becoming increasingly risky with squatter settlements running out of control.
The minister acknowledged that the situation was putting a strain on the limited resources of the security forces, but noted that until legislation was established to criminalise the act, "strategising and re-strategising" had to be the key feature of policing these communities.
"It limits the ability of the police to patrol and also the ability of the police to respond to incidents that occur," Bunting said. "We know that officer safety is compromised in a lot of these communities. I personally recall touring some of these communities and sometimes you are going down this little passage that is three or four feet wide and eight feet zinc on either side. It gives you a sense of police going down that in pursuit of criminals and you have no idea what is on the other side."
He added: "When presented with a community the police don't have a choice. They can't say this is a squatter community, or this is an informal community they just work around. They have to adjust their strategies."
However the constable, who has just over four years of experience under his belt, said he has gained enough experience to know that sometimes no form of strategy is capable of getting the job done.
"It might allow you fi come out in one piece but most of the time when you go in there it's just a waste of the force resources," he said.
"Entering Mona Commons for example, them man deh have weh we as the police call 'choppy' where they cut out little holes in the zinc fences. More time you go in there fi a man and you find yourself moving from one choppy to the next choppy and if you follow that you reach a dead end weh a man a wait on you."
The constable added: "It's just from out of experience weh two or three police might have in going into some of these communities that save most of us at times."
The census data shows that parishes in western Jamaica accounted for some of the largest concentrations of households on squatter settlements. Westmoreland accounted for some 5,098 households while St James and Trelawny accounted for 3,141 and 1,262 respectively. With most of the informal settlements situated in hilly terrain, policing squatter settlements on the western end of the island is believed to be even more difficult.
"It is home sweet home for them. They know the area more than us so when we go in there, to them we are like sitting ducks," a constable stationed at the Free Port Police Station in St James said. He also wished to remain unidentified.
"Because most of these communities are poorly lit it is even worst to go in there at nights. When night comes these are places you want to stay far from, but sometimes we have no other choice," he said.