Editorial | SOEs as long-term anti-crime strategy
Prime Minister Andrew Holness had made it clear that he sees the use of states of emergency (SOE) as a long-term strategy, of up to seven years, in the fight against crime, especially murders. So Jamaicans can assume that these powers, for the security forces to abridge normal constitutional rights and freedoms, will be in place for the entirety of Mr Holness’ next term, should his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) win the next general election, constitutionally due in early 2021.
It is not an unreasonable presumption that the prime minister’s position, articulated during the recent parliamentary debate for the extension of the SOE already in force in the island’s three most westerly parishes – St James, Hanover, and Westmoreland – is based on advice that he has received from the heads of the security services, in particular, the commissioner and the chief of defence staff, who have been recent champions of the use of these measures.
What, however, has been missing from the debate over the SOEs is the deeper intellectual basis for their use as crime-fighting tools in the context of the adherence to constitutional rights in a liberal democracy, as well as a broader mix of strategies for a sustainable reduction in criminality.
This newspaper appreciates that states of emergency are popular, and understands why.
Decline in Homicides
Even with a 22 per cent decline in homicides last year, there were 1,287 murders in Jamaica, which was largely attributed to a year-long SOE in the parish of St James – where homicides plummeted 70 per cent – and for shorter periods in half of the parish of St Catherine and portions of Kingston.
In 2010, after a security operation in west Kingston to rout the militia of notorious crime boss Christopher Coke, murders fell by a third and held for three years before the next upward spiral. The other side of the west Kingston story, however, is that 70 persons lost their lives, killed mostly by the security forces, many of them extrajudicially, according to the findings of a commission of enquiry.
The upshot, nonetheless, is that although still nearly three times the regional average, Jamaica’s homicide rate was 47.2 per 100,000 last year, compared to 60.4/100,000 and over 62/100,000 in 2009, the year before the west Kingston operation. The obvious conclusion is that states of emergency work, which is the argument of the prime minister as to why they may be necessary over the longer term.
Said Mr Holness in his parliamentary remarks: “If we continue to use this strategy in a selective way, give ourselves five to seven years, and we can bring our murder rate down to 16 per 100,000, we could then … be in a position to now use conventional methods to maintain that and to reduce crime fully.”
Mr Holness’ theory behind the sustained use of these ‘special measures’ is that one murder often leads to reprisals, sometimes of multiple killings, which then spiral out of control. That argument is, on the face of it, almost non sequitur. More critically, it doesn’t disaggregate between the powers afforded by the state of emergency and the concentration of police and soldiers in communities where one is in effect, which is what people generally associate with an SOE, and the relative efficacy of either.
Indeed, as we have argued before, it doesn’t require the declaration of a state of emergency for the police commissioner or the chief of defence staff, working together, to decide where to deploy their men. It is also accepted that a concentration of security officers in a community is a deterrent to crime.
The larger issue of constitutional rights, and the powers of the security forces, during a state of emergency is that of detaining persons for extended periods without having to bring them before the courts. It can have the effect of removing troublemakers from a community, but it wasn’t intended, in a liberal democracy, to be a long-term suspension of rights and freedoms. That removes the notion of the SOE as a tool to be used in moments of crises, being always aware of the primacy of individuals’ rights and freedoms. It is on this basis that we hope to hear from Mr Holness a broader, deeper and more thoughtful strategy for tackling crime.