Sun | Apr 11, 2021

Editorial | Muted headlines not the answer to address crime

Published:Monday | January 18, 2021 | 12:06 AM

If only the press didn’t print those macabre headlines and lurid stories of actual homicides, or other crimes. If they didn’t tell the truth, or found a way to finesse the facts. If they found a way to portray an alternate universe, or soften reality.

To be fair to Major General Antony Anderson, the police chief, he did not exactly say it that way. It was couched in complaints about the media’s lack of context. But shorn of its overburden and taken to its logical conclusion, that essentially is Major General Anderson’s argument: that the press should skirt gingerly around Jamaica’s crisis of crime, lest they frighten people outside the country.

“If all your information comes from headlines then you will be scared,” the police chief was quoted by the Observer newspaper as telling the Jamaican diaspora during a virtual town hall meeting last week. “We have some particularly sensational headlines sometimes that don’t fully explain or put context to what is happening.”

Major General Anderson’s bid was to decipher for those of our citizens who live overseas the character of the crime on the island and, apparently, they ought not to be overly afraid about coming home, notwithstanding Jamaica’s annual average of over 1,300 murders. In 2019, 1,339 reported killings and a homicide rate of 49 per 100,000 of population. Murders were less than two per cent fewer last year; the murder rate was around 48/100,000.

By contrast, the United States has around five murders for every 100,000 residents. In Canada, it is under two per 100,000. The same is true for England and Wales. Even in a high-crime neighbourhood, Jamaica’s homicide rate is as much as three times higher than most of its Caribbean peers.

GANG VIOLENCE

What Police Commissioner Anderson argued, however, is that most of Jamaica’s murders tend to result from gang-on-gang violence, or against families of gang members and, often, interpersonal conflicts – nearly 80 per cent, by the police’s analysis. “So, a huge portion of this (the annual murder numbers), probably around 900, are done by gangs on gangs or gang affiliates,” he said.

He, for example, pointed to last week’s killing of a four-year-old child allegedly by her uncle, the headline of which the police were, “luckily”, able to “jump ahead of”. There was another case of a recent killing that was the result of “intimate partner violence”.

Said the police commissioner: “We charged about 500 people for murders last year. Sensational headlines don’t fully explain or put ( the cases into) context. Without context it creates a lot of fear, and in our victimisation survey that was done, there has always been this big gap between people’s personal experience and how they perceived, and we have to close that gap. It is more the fear of it than the actual thing that is driving our narrative.”

And that narrative, we are supposed to believe, is the fabrication of the press rather than people’s genuine experiences and fears. Perhaps! But Major General Anderson’s argument needs further and better particulars.

For instance, a study on the cost of crime in Latin America and the Caribbean by the Inter-American Development Bank, published in 2017 but based on 2014 surveys, reported that 50 per cent of Jamaicans knew someone close to them who had been murdered. It may have been a friend, a sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin. Think on that bit of data. Half of more than 2.7 million people residing in Jamaica could tell you directly of someone they knew relatively intimately who had been murdered. It would be interesting to know what an updated report would say on that matter.

VICTIMS OF REPRISALS

Additionally, as the police commissioner conceded,the families of gang members were often the victims of reprisals. What he did not say, but which we believe to be the case, is that the vast majority of these family members were not themselves members of gangs, of whose impunity they were victims.

A subtext to all of this, which was not specifically addressed by Commissioner Anderson, is that most of these killings happen in communities where gangs may be in the ascendancy and the institutions of the State that provide them with services and protection perform inadequately. They, without putting too fine a point on it, live in fear. Their addresses do not make that fear any less real or its reporting by the press any less legitimate. Many of these communities, we remind, are in hailing distance of some where people may feel relatively safe in gated residences, behind high walls and much security paraphernalia.

We agree that contextual reporting is important. The real problem is not headlines or the reportage of crime, but crime itself. It is fixing crime, rather than anodyne reports and muted headlines, that will lessen the fear – in and outside of Jamaica and in all postal codes.