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Editorial | Another angle on crime, police reform for the PM

Published:Monday | March 2, 2020 | 12:00 AM

No one could credibly challenge Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ assertion that Jamaica’s crisis of crime, especially its homicide rate, long predated his administration, or that his government has significantly hiked spending on the police force.

Until the declaration of a state of public emergency 10 years ago – called in the face of a threatened insurgency by Christopher Coke’s militia – which led to a decline in murders by a third over the next three years, homicides in Jamaica had doubled every decade or so.

Further, in the four years since Mr Holness has been in office, the budgetary allocation to the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) has increased by nearly 40 per cent, to more than J$40 billion for the fiscal year that starts in April.

It is true that the economic reforms of the last eight years have recently allowed the Government more fiscal room within which to manoeuvre. But the administration could have addressed other perceived priorities with the freed-up resources.

Where there is great room to challenge Mr Holness and his Government on crime, which this newspaper does, is on their policy mix, and especially the areas of the JCF that they have made their priority.

The Government’s anti-crime strategy of choice since 2018, initially with success, has been to rely on states of emergency, eight of which are now in place. In the first year, despite there still being over 1,200 murders, homicides, nationally, dived by 22 per cent, including by 70 per cent in the parish of St James, where the murder rate was heading towards 200 per 100,000.

Homicides increased by three per cent last year, and, for the first two months of 2020, were galloping at 10 per cent ahead of the corresponding period in 2019. Mr Holness, however, has noted that in most police divisions where there are states of emergency, killings are still lower than the previous year, saying that this is providing the Government with respite to upgrade the conditions under which the police work, including working towards a technologically driven constabulary.

“What we are doing now, in an intense way, is to put in place resources, systems and personnel, integrated with technology, to address the crime problem,” the prime minister told The Gleaner last week.

We agree with these measures. Long before last year’s announcement of the five-year plan for a 50 per cent increase in the size of the JCF, bringing its numbers to 18,000, we championed this policy, noting that with a ratio of around 225 police for every 100,000 citizens, Jamaica lagged far behind most of its Caribbean neighbours, who have substantially less crime. There is no gainsaying the potential value of sophisticated crime-detection and prevention technologies in the hands of a constabulary capable of using them.

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Our concern, though, is twofold. Not only is the Government probably placing the proverbial horse before the cart, but, like past administrations, is circumspect in taking the tough decisions. It has been tentatively working around the edges, which will require a long time before it reaches the core.

Jamaica’s police force, or a large portion of it, is notoriously corrupt and resistant to change. That corruption is reinforced by the so-called ‘squaddie mentality’, where members of the same training/graduating batches protect each other, and the organisation as a whole circle the wagons in the face of any perceived assault. Even if the corrupt members are a minority, they are of a sufficient critical mass to undermine meaningful reform. Thus, change by attrition will be exceedingly slow.

However, persons who have analysed the force have concluded that reform could be achieved quickly by culling around 2,000, members, or 17 per cent of the force, including, in similar proportion, gazetted officers. Not only would it remove the corrupt and the incompetent, but the shock of the action would be a deterrent to others. And it would provide a relatively clean canvas upon which to pursue real reform.

No one underestimates the potential political price of such an action, but it has been done successful elsewhere, such as in Georgia after its Rose Revolution of 2003. Northern Ireland, too, undertook a dramatic overhaul of its police force in the aftermath of ‘The Troubles’.

The question for Jamaica is whether Mr Holness, or any other political leader, is willing to invest the required political capital to get the job done.