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Anthony Gifford and Gillian Burgess | Zones of special opportunity

Published:Friday | September 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Anthony Gifford
Deputy Commissioner of Police Clifford Blake (foreground) and Major General Rocky Meade walking the streets of Mount Salem, St James earlier this week.

The whole country is hoping that the Zones of Special Operations Act will be effective in reducing violent crime. There is naturally some scepticism as to whether members of the 'joint force' under the 'joint command' of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the Jamaica Defence Force senior officers will, in fact, respect the constitutional rights of people in the designated areas.

The memory of the Tivoli incursion, where members of a joint force killed more than 70 people, is fresh. The commission of enquiry looked the "element of separateness" in the planning of that operation, and concluded that "the level of coordination between the JDF and the JCF was inadequate. This inadequacy created spaces for abusive conduct, possible criminality, and reduced individual accountability".

We who took part in the inquiry see some hopeful signs that lessons have been learned from its recommendations. The act provides for the joint command to be "trained in human rights, the use of force and community-development initiatives". Every zone "shall have a written accountability and reporting system", something which was woefully lacking in West Kingston. Body-worn cameras are to be used, another recommendation by the commission for special policing operations.

But, however many officers are deployed, and however efficient and scrupulous they may be, the initiative cannot succeed unless it tackles not only crime but the causes of crime. The act recognises this by the requirement that a Social Intervention Committee be established in each zone within five working days. The remit of these committees is to "develop a sustainable development plan" and to "recommend social interventions within the zone, including compulsory school attendance and local improvement and urban-renewal initiatives". It sounds big and fine, and it echoes the commission's plea for "skills-training programmes in garrison communities", and "remedial training of at-risk youth". But how can it be made to work?

The list of important people who are to be members of the committees does not impress us: the minister, the member of parliament, the custos, the mayor, and various permanent secretaries are all included. Only at the end do we see a glimmer, through the addition of "any other person who, or agency that, in the opinion of the minister, can assist with the work of the committee".

There are many who have more experience than we have, and the best and most committed people must be brought into this social development project in each zone if the scheme is not to become a charade. Our ideas below are examples of how imaginative thinking could really make these zones into zones of special opportunity:

1 The committees should be assisted by reputable criminologists and others who can help them make sense of the data they intend to collect and formulate a blueprint for the reduction of crime. It's fine to invite a community member to help shape the solutions. Inclusion is important. But to call on academics to come down from the campuses would also be productive. We recall the probing questions of Professor Anthony Harriott at the commission of enquiry.

2 Conduct a census of all children of school age and create a database to ensure that they attend school regularly. No child should be idle at home or working to support their families. Once a child is absent for a certain portion of the school year, they should be flagged for investigation. This programme would use the attendance registers that schools already have in place. The only additional resource would be the database and the data-entry personnel.

3 Use teachers to identify students in need of additional assistance and supplement the cohort of teachers skilled in remedial studies in schools, so that no child is left behind.

4 Create or use community centres or local libraries as homework assistance centres. The centres should be sufficiently resourced so that textbooks and computers are available. Use of the facilities must be strictly supervised so that the resources are available for all children.

5 All students between the ages of 14 and 17 must participate in mandatory career counselling. Private-sector entities should be targeted to assist children develop practical income-generating goals.

6 Courses should be implemented in schools targeted at teaching children the soft skills they will need for employability, i.e., understanding different cultures and organisational structures so they can better work in harmony with others and advance up the economic ladder.

7 The community should have its own petty sessions court presided over by justices of the peace. The premise of the legislation is that the area is conflict-ridden. The parish courts are overwhelmed with serious offences. Minor offences are placed on the back burner, but they are important. Minor grievances lead to major grievances. If we had a reliable justice system, the local dons could not compete with the courts.

If we successfully target the children, we should see results in the next 10 years. Gangs are generally made up of males 13-25 years old. If we are able, through a system of mentorship and assistance, to develop well-rounded students, it will deprive the gangs of new recruits. If we position a court in the communities to quickly deal with disputes, the need to take matters into one's own hands may decline. If serious crimes are dealt with speedily and efficiently, it may function as a deterrent. Finally, if the children can develop their own wealth-creation initiatives, then the entire country would benefit.

- Anthony Gifford and Gillian Burgess are attorneys-at-law. Email feedback to