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Jamaica wrapped up in police tape - Looking at crime through different lens

Published:Sunday | January 20, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Bernard Headley

Bernard Headley, GUEST COLUMNIST

The numbers show that violence became endemic and incidents of both common and organised crime skyrocketed in the years following Jamaica's Independence; and they've remained extraordinarily high since then.

Our violent crime rates doubled (and then some) during the first 12 years following Independence. And since the 1970s, the Planning Institute of Jamaica has been reporting high annual numbers for all categories of serious crimes.

But let's stay with homicides, the most reliable index of serious crime. The police recorded a total of 80 homicides for 1962, the year of Independence, for a rate of six or seven homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The rates climbed in each of the succeeding years, to an astounding 45 homicides per 100,000 in the 1990s, or well in excess of 1,200 murders per year.

The 1,087 homicides reported for 2012 (not including killings by the police) indicate that we did experience last year, as in other recent years, some unexceptional but thankful murder declines. We are still, though, at 40 or so homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, among the three most murderous nations on earth.

But what would have been responsible 50 and 60 years ago for our homicide rate being the low it was then? And what changed so drastically to cause the figure to have climbed so horrendously? I offer two interrelated explanations:

(i) Fifty years of a development deficit that has fostered weak to non-existent opportunity structures, while eviscerating one-time powerful agencies of cohesion and social control.

(ii) Fifty years of chaotic urbanisation, persistent poverty, and high levels of inequality.

Here's what I mean. Self-sufficiency and social cohesion were the dominant characteristics of the small communities in which the overwhelming majority of us lived in the period of pre-Independence and pre-'modernisation'. Small-scale farming, which supplemented income from sugar, added resilience to closely connected village life. Village elders bonded and shared wisdom and expertise with youngsters. Informal agencies and abundance of social capital worked well to socialise and insulate. And the agencies - extended family, the Church, veranda schoolteachers, district constables - were equally effective at ordering lives as at maintaining order.

But sugar's downward spiral in the late 1960s saw hordes of our people migrating out of rural, tight-knit communities in search of new kinds of livelihoods. The new livelihoods, i.e., jobs in industry, which the new nation's leadership class had promised the uprooted, were, however, insufficient or simply did not exist. Still, by the end of the 1960s, hordes of displaced people had made their way, children in tow, into and on the outskirts of the island's four main urban centres.


As the cities of Kingston, Spanish Town, May Pen and Montego Bay expanded in size and scale, so also did urban poverty and inequality. Inequality, in urban contexts, is a form of structural violence, which then triggers the more reactionary forms of violence. The kind of despairing income inequality that has been an enduring feature of the society, but worsened since Independence, is one thing. But inequality and deprivation are not limited exclusively to income; they extend to lack of access to basic social services, lack of state protection, exposure to systematic corruption, and inefficiencies that most acutely affect the poor.

A 2012 study by Canada's International Development Research Centre points out: "In situations of widespread and severe inequality, the urban poor are undervalued and marginalised, their daily living conditions heightened by conflict." They do also become available for all manner of pain, waste and destruction - both in receiving and giving.

Children who had travelled in tow into Kingston and other chaotic urban spaces in the 1950s and 1960s would, in the years following Independence, mutate into two generations of anomic, marauding Johnny Too Bads. 'Walkin' down the road' with a weapon in their waists, and in their pants, they could just as easily slit throats as they could 'make' babies, with the same lack of regard or equal delight.


What, though, is the way forward over the next 50 years to, if we can't reverse what 'gawn bad a mawnin', at least not let it get worse?

1. Pacification and community accountability: Acting ACP Derrick 'Cowboy' Knight says he'll be bringing a "different type" of tough-guy policing to my town, Mandeville. But tougher policing and greater powers to law enforcement are not be-all or end-all solutions to our crime and violence troubles. In fact, they're not even solutions! Community efficacy and correcting our development deficit are. What we expect of the police is that they manage threats and respond to crimes promptly - and that they solve them. We expect them to weed out from communities predatory 'big men', whether tribal - political or criminal. After which, we expect them to assert legitimate authority and assist with efforts to build trust. I hope that's what Mr Knight means.

2. Broadening protection and reducing risks: A wide spectrum of interventions to simultaneously promote 'protective factors' and reduce 'risk factors' ought to be encouraged and sustained, and new ones created. What we do in the lives of discarded individuals will have a determinative effect on levels of crime and violence. Our failure at sustaining change interventions in the life situations of damaged children accounts in no small measure for our bitter harvest of violent crime. We'll have to do better!

We can, in the case of older offenders, invest in 'Pay for success' or social-impact bonds - tools with proven success at reducing violent crime. The bonds work in the opposite direction from prisons for profit: investors make money NOT from mass incarceration of a racial undercaste, but from fixing damaged lives.

3. Reaching down and stepping up: The kind of social capital and cohesion that existed in the villages of 1950s Jamaica can never be replicated, in quite the same way, in our modern, urban contexts. Social capital and cohesion are still, nonetheless, essential for binding community and linking people together in ways that reduce risks.

No longer tethered to village custodianship, our society will have to develop new, organic forms of cohesion, while deepening and expanding existing ones. Grounded youth organisations - 4-H and athletic clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts, Seventh-day Adventist Pathfinders - will have to reach down deeper and then step up, in a bigger way, for the common good. They'll need to fill roles and functions once performed by village folks and village elders, parsons and district constables.

4. Urban development and renewal: The concept of 'citizen security', as articulated by both the ministries of National Security and Justice, under their Citizen Security and Justice Programme, is a valid way for framing a holistic approach to promoting safety and enabling wider social and economic development.

Working from this central idea, governments in South Asia in the 1980s and 1990s sought to identify innovative ways of working with private enterprise to harness the unrealised potential of informal settlements. Similar partnerships in Jamaica could see, for example, better development of recycling, employing hundreds from similar kinds of settlements.

5. Inducements to move out of the city: One crime-reduction proposal I have on the table envisions engaging groups of jobless deportees in nation building. The project would 'redeploy' out of Kingston, back to rural roots, willing participants. It would then engage them in agricultural production. Projects like these, when sustained, reduce risks by promoting values of inclusion, giving excluded, vulnerable members of the society opportunities to participate in national development.

6. Building peace: Successful nation building must include building understanding of, as well as teaching and living, the ways of peace. Something like a national Peace Institute would promote what a 2012 Inter-American Development Bank report refers to as "antipodes" to violence - i.e., making manifest development with opportunity, respect and tolerance, healing and restoration, equal rights and justice.

Indeed, the United Nations Development Programme and other partners have devoted considerable resources to supporting national "peace architectures" as the ultimate protective factors against crime and disorder.

Bernard Headley, PhD, is professor of criminology at the UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and