Editorial | When armies are on the streets
Prime Minister Andrew Holness seems to believe that violent altercations between soldiers and residents of Denham Town are being provoked by interest hoping to see an end to the declaration of that west Kingston community as a zone of special operations (ZOSO).
Mr Holness could possibly be right. He has access to intelligence to which others are not privy. Be that as it may, perhaps the prime minister (PM) should also contemplate other possibilities. For instance, the longer the army stays on the road doing policing/security duties, the greater the likelihood of its members coming into friction with citizens. A potential negative outcome of such a development is the continued piercing of the mystique around the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) and the erosion of trust in it as an institution.
Indeed, the JDF has long been Jamaica’s most respected and trusted public institution. In its 2018-19 biennial survey on attitudes to democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP research laboratory found that the degree of trust Jamaicans reposed in its military, measured on a scale where 100 was the highest, the JDF scored 64.6. That was just over five points down from the start of the 2000s, but it was in the range of the scores for the intervening periods. The trust enjoyed by the JDF was significantly higher than that for the police (38.8), Parliament (35.9) and political parties (33.4).
A question of trust of the region’s armed forces does not appear in LAPOP’s recently released 2021 survey. But in an environment of declining hemispheric support for coups d’etat, 46 per cent of Jamaicans – the third highest in the region after Peru (52 per cent) and Guatemala (51 per cent) – said they would tolerate a military takeover to battle corruption. That is a decline from 55 per cent four years ago. The matter of whether Jamaicans would tolerate a coup if the aim was to combat crime is not addressed in the latest report. However, in the 2018-19 survey, 65 per cent of Jamaicans said they would. In the 2020-2021 survey, 44 per cent, the highest in the region, said they could live with a coup in the case of a public health emergency.
Data such as these help to buttress the new chief of defence staff, Rear Admiral Antonette Wemyss Gorman’s, mild boast, ahead of taking command, of the JDF being “consistently ranked in the top five organisations that people trust in Jamaica”.
That trust rests, in part, on the perception of the JDF as a disciplined, competent, and efficient organisation. Its officer corps is believed to be highly educated, its unit technically skilled. Moreover, altercations between soldiers were few, and when they occurred there was a sense they were dealt with an efficiency not matched by the civilian world.
The environment in which the JDF operates, though, is changing. While soldiers have for many years assisted in policing operations that, in recent times, have grown significantly as the Government relies on the imposition of states and public emergency and ZOSOs as its key crime-fighting strategy.
Essentially, ZOSOs are the codification in a special legislation of all things that could be done through regular policing and administrative action – except that they assume the tone of halfway-house states of emergency. The security forces enter crime-plagued communities – mostly blighted urban centres – to displace criminals, which is supposed to be followed by a buildout phase when state agencies overhaul physical and social infrastructure.
At least half a dozen are in force in several Jamaican communities, including Denham Town, where a ZOSO was rolled out more than four years ago. Soldiers have been in these communities since then.
ZOSOs have been interspersed with states of emergency. The strategy pulled large numbers of soldiers out of barracks.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
Inevitably, where the soldiers operate for long periods in communities, there is interaction with residents, much of it, maybe even the majority, to the good. Indeed, in Denham Town, the Government has reported a decline in murders. There has also been an uptick in the State’s social intervention efforts.
But there have also been serious outbreaks of conflict, resulting in rising tension between residents and the military. Last month, a young man was killed by a soldier, which residents claimed was a wanton shooting. Last week, there was a viral video showing a soldier kicking and jabbing a woman who had apparently attacked a colleague. Another soldier used his rifle to club a man. There have been a trickling of complaints elsewhere against the JDF.
With respect to the recent Denham Town incidents, and others before them, Mr Holness, it seems, suspects hidden pulling strings to be disrupting the peace. “Let me make it clear to whichever intelligence is operating behind criminality, that the Government of Jamaica will not pull down the zone of special operations in Denham Town to give space to criminals,” he said in a speech.
The PM would be advised not to jump to conclusions. If he is wrong, not only does the claim suggest that the people in the community are without agency, but he risks alienating residents who may have legitimate complaints.
What may be necessary is a fundamental review of strategy, having regard for the fact that the JDF and its soldiers are not trained to be constabulary, where the concept is to police with the consent of the community. A way of limiting long-term operational interaction between the military and citizens must be a critical part of that policy review.