Sun | Aug 19, 2018

Public order and crime: fixing broken windows

Published:Sunday | January 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Martin Henry

On New Year's Day, the Police High Command issued a statement that, this year, the maintenance of public order and public safety is high on its list of priorities. Within a week, 24 more citizens had been murdered in a bloody start to 2015. That is 10 more than recorded over the same period last year.

Underscoring just how poor public order and public safety is, just hours before the police statement, a university student who had ventured out to the fireworks on the Kingston waterfront on the final night of the old year had been shot in the back. Not in a direct attack, but by a stray bullet fired off by someone with a firearm, illegal or legal, who felt at liberty to discharge it in proximity to a crowd of people out to enjoy themselves, with guarantees of order and safety provided by the police.

With murders taking off at full gallop at the start of the year and both the police and their minister pleased as punch with the 16 per cent reduction achieved last year, the temptation will be great to downgrade the announced public order and public safety priority and fling even more resources and personnel at the usual paramilitary fight against crime.

Big mistake.

There is a close link between maintaining public order and reducing crime. The police New Year statement itself recognises this link, noting that, where public order is not maintained, disorder will likely take over, bringing with it lawlessness and chaos.

My only problem with this observation by the police is the matter of 'maintaining' public order. The problem is not maintaining; it is restoring! Jamaica has suffered a horrendous descent into lawlessness, chaos and public disorder. The situation has been so normalised that most citizens, particularly those not old enough to have really known another way, accept this as the way things are and always will be. We participate in it, we adapt ourselves to it, we expect it, we live with it. And police officers themselves are not exempt from the prevailing culture of lawlessness, chaos and public disorder from which they have been recruited. High Command will have to do a lot more than issue statements of intent.

A government has no more important or basic responsibility than maintaining law and order and protecting citizens. We have a magnificent Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms now embedded in the Constitution. But the enjoyment of those rights and freedoms hinge upon an orderly and safe society.

Right at the start, the charter says, "The State has an obligation to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and freedoms." We have focused heavily on state infringement of these rights, which is basically what the Office of the Public Defender is about, to which Arlene Harrison-Henry has just been appointed as the third holder of the office.

Rights violations

But most infringements of our rights and freedoms come from fellow citizens. "All persons are under a responsibility to respect and uphold the rights of others", the charter declares. But this cannot be a matter of goodwill and just being nice. It has to be a matter of law enforcement, enforcing public order and public safety to create the kind of environment in which crime will diminish and rights and freedoms will flourish.

Minister of Finance Dr Peter Phillips is promising a much earlier start to the Budget process for the next financial year, and says the expenditure and revenue sides will be considered together for the first time. Wise moves.

There are all kinds of demands for special consideration in the austerity Budget cast under International Monetary Fund strictures. But a special case must be made for financing the improvement of law enforcement towards creating an environment of public order and public safety in which investments and the economy can flourish, but even more so in which the lives of the people governed can flourish. I have been making that case so regularly that my own columns are popping up as references when I research public order and policing on the Internet!

Government should top-slice a small and painless percentage from every other budget line and repurpose it to national security and justice as underpinning everything else and being the core functions of government.

But while we wait, I need a formation of no more than 400 police personnel from the 12,000 or so in the force, and led by no less than an assistant commissioner. The job of the formation, working in squads of 20, will be to capture major urban centres for public order and public safety, symbolically beginning with the parish capitals. Kingston, for sake of size, will need three to four groups.

I have naively held the belief for a while now that our country could begin to see a measurable drop in criminality within 72 hours if certain strategic steps in law enforcement were taken with vigour. One of those steps is the simultaneous cross-island retaking of critical urban centres for public order and public safety. Another is decapitating the well-known established gangs. The High Command keeps telling us that they have intelligence on gangs and on the key perpetrators of crime and violence. Getting them off the streets would yield a breathing space.

We have heard nice things from the police, but have not felt sustained action on the ground yielding the results needed. Here is reassurance from the High Command in an August 2014 release: "The Police High Command is reassuring the public that the police will continue to maintain a high presence in major towns, business districts and communities in an effort to maintain law and order and ensure public safety.

"While the various counter-gang initiatives and crime-reduction strategies employed across the country continue to bear fruit, evidenced by a significant decrease in all categories of major crimes, including murder, the police will be unrelenting in their efforts to secure citizens and visitors."

On Day Seven of this year, with 24 murders already down, the new commissioner, Dr Carl Williams, sought to assure the public that the police will not allow criminals to erode the gains made in their fight against crime in 2014, which saw the lowest murder toll in 11 years.

Radiating out of the town centres of the parish capitals and the main centres in Kingston, public-order squads are to enforce every law in the book for public order: Traffic, vending, anti-litter, noise abatement, signage, operation of businesses, copyright infringements in sale of bootleg CDs and DVDs, drugs, smoking, environmental law infringements, public transport ... . You name it, plus the comprehensive provisions of the Towns and Communities Act while we await an updating of this vital piece of legislation for public order and public safety in the 21st century, not the 19th century.

Practically, to be manageable, decisions might have to be made about which laws would be most critical to enforce for public order and public safety. The judiciary, including justices of the peace, would have to be mobilised and strengthened for this push. Strategic exemplary enforcement in critical places like parish capitals and major commercial centres elsewhere will send a strong and powerful signal of seriousness of intent to restore public order and improve public safety.

Broken-windows theory

James Wilson and George Kelling's broken-windows theory and its application to crime fighting is now very well known. As described by Wikipedia, "The broken-windows theory is a criminological theory of the norm-setting and signalling effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and antisocial behaviour. The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening."

Wilson and Kelling based their theory on the very observable example that, if a single broken window is not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break more windows. With more broken windows in public spaces, other and harder crimes follow.

While the theoreticians have debated, several cities and their police departments, most notably New York, have reaped considerable success in crime reduction, applying the broken-windows theory to law enforcement.

We will know our Government and our police are serious about public order and public safety when they make bold and sustained moves to reclaim public spaces for law and order, and when the Government provides reasonable resources to make this possible as the core function of any government. There are many broken windows to be fixed.

Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and