Mon | Sep 25, 2023


Gov’t charged to make unpopular decisions to cripple crime

Published:Friday | April 9, 2021 | 12:17 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
The cordoned-off crime scene along Dumfries Street in Denham Town, Kingston, where an eight-year-old girl was shot dead on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
The cordoned-off crime scene along Dumfries Street in Denham Town, Kingston, where an eight-year-old girl was shot dead on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Criminal defence attorney Peter Champagnie.
File Criminal defence attorney Peter Champagnie.

Resume hanging with immediacy. Elevate gun and drug crimes to the level of treason – punishable by death; handpick a special-ops squad. And while all that is being done, empower communities, particularly their younger, vulnerable residents, to take back control from flesh-hungry criminals.

It is a document of “unpopular decisions”, but Burknell Stewart, now CEO at the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH), believes the resolutions of his crime-abatement and intervention initiative can put a 60 per cent dent in gun murders and bring lasting reprieve for a nation recording close to 400 homicides since January. But that is if the Government bothers to pay the plan any mind.

He is a trained teacher – admittedly not exposed to the rudiments of national security outside the screams from hundreds of gunshot, chop and stab victims his staff has rushed into the Accident and Emergency Unit in recent months – but Stewart, a former football coach, manager, and mentor, stands behind the plan he says puts the interest of ordinary citizens first.

“We have to start with the communities,” argued a passionate Stewart, who, while advocating for community kitchens, jobs and anti-crime committees for the most at-risk youngsters and residents, also called for hard labour for prisoners with sentences beyond 30 days, and the “neutralisation” of others by a 25-man special-ops team with “broad jurisdiction, [which] will receive directives from an undisclosed headquarters that collects and processes data, develops strategies, and coordinate both programmes and operations ...”.

“Media silence and deniability are crucial to the success and integrity of the programmes and overall operation. Any disclosure will be on a need-to-know basis and will be limited at best outside of the ‘five fingers’,” noted the document, referencing a five-prong National Security Committee made up of the chief justice, minister of national security, the prime minister, the opposition leader, and the head of the army and police force.

Information “potholes”

“A lot of times people tip people (criminals) off and a lot of the plans and initiatives fail before they start ... . In any progressive society, for the interest and survivability of the masses, sometimes you have to do some things that are not so popular,” he told The Gleaner, adding that information “potholes” must be controlled, even while upholding basic human rights.

“I’ve heard of communities where you have some men who send for your 13-year-old daughters for their own sexual gains, and as parents, you can’t do anything about it. My thing is, in cases like these, I see no reason when persons actually use the gun and power of their gangs and authority, I think it (neutralisation) is warranted, especially where you see neutralising these individuals as a gain for these communities,” he said.

These are not normal times, argued Stewart, whose plan also calls for increased government transparency and the placement of organised crime investigations in the hands of an independent body outside of Jamaica that has no ties with locals.

“One hundred and forty-seven deaths in 30 days is enough justification for enforcing even unpopular provisions under the Constitution. Utilise social media as a tool to capture public opinions and accommodate useful inputs,” Stewart wrote of the death penalty, adding that the plan has been presented to members of the Government, but has sparked little interest.

The initiative also advocated for increased representation and accountability from justices of the peace, and for the compensation of inmates for labour within prisons – money that can be deposited into an account to be used for smoother reintegration into society after they have been released. Some of the funds can also be sent to families for child and household support.

Stewart’s crime counteraction comes amid a slew of deadly gang rivalries, particularly in the Corporate Area and St James, a string of violent attacks on women, and as Jamaicans suspensefully await the outcome of searches for missing Clarendon teacher Nattalie Dawkins. This, while the disappearance of blind university student Jasmine Deen more than a year ago continues to haunt the country and her family in Bull Bay.

Stewart’s plan found both favour, and failure, from Professor Anthony Clayton, head of the Institute for Sustainable Development at The University of the West Indies, and criminal defence attorney Peter Champagnie, who welcomed Stewart’s passion and involvement, but criticised the inefficiency of some of his recommendations. Some items, they argued, have either failed in the past or are currently part of the Government’s crime efforts; while others would demand much constitutional redraft or could cause a crippling international backlash.

“Some of the ideas are sensible but are similar to what is being done already. Some ideas are not great; there is little evidence that gun amnesties work, for example. The idea that resuming hanging can deter crime is also not good. There is little evidence that more severe punishments can deter crime, when the real problem is low levels of detection and conviction,” retorted Clayton.

“It reads as though it comes from someone who is sincerely concerned about the issues, which I respect, but he is not familiar with the area. For example, reducing organised crime by placing responsibility for sensitive investigations in the hands of an independent body outside of Jamaica, ... I understand the concern about the possibility of corruption or political influence, but I don’t think it is warranted,” said Clayton, noting that the Major Organised Crime Agency (MOCA) has recently been given full operational autonomy, and has competent and capable staff.

Other policing agencies such as the Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Unit (C-TOC) already have the capacity and resources to carry out such investigations, Clayton said.

“Other elements of the proposal – such as the need to prevent corruption – are already in the National Crime Consensus Plan,” he added.

“Everyone who loves this country feels grief and anger at the destruction of Jamaica’s potential. However, crime and corruption now have deep roots in Jamaica, and it will take a great deal of skill and patience to eradicate them,” noted Clayton, applauding Stewart’s effort.

... Crime, not just Government’s business

“This crime-abatement and intervention initiative for Jamaica must be applauded because ever so often we take the view that the issue of solving crime is the government’s business, and that is very much wrong. Suggestions can come not just from citizens, but also corporate bodies,” Champagnie told The Gleaner, reflecting on aspects of the proposal.

He, however, questioned the practicality of some of the solutions, positing alterations to some, which he said would serve Jamaicans better if tweaked.

“Based on the empirical data, that (gun amnesties) is not feasible because we have had gun amnesties in the past and they have not really materialised,” he noted, questioning the suggestion for elevating gun crimes to treason. “I don’t know if that would be acceptable, certainly from an international point of view, and we have to recognise Jamaica’s space in the geopolitical structure.

“That would require some serious amendments to the Constitution, but even so, I believe we would face a lot of international pressure and the question may very well arise that, ‘If you are allowing the death penalty for this, what about praedial larceny? What about men who rape and kill women in the vilest way?’” posited the criminal defence attorney, who made it clear that even he, too, has a responsibility to help in Jamaica’s crime fight.

The proposal of the resumption of hanging has been a vexed issue over decades, and although the gun is usually the weapon of choice, Champagnie said he is not certain hanging is justifiable for certain gun crimes.

“A lot of what is in this plan is commendable, but it is going to require a lot of funding in terms of public education campaigns. That is a major weakness with this,” he said.

“You may have a challenge with employing independent investigators because, ultimately, any such independent body is going to have to rely on police officers to execute warrants, to conduct interviews, and an independent body does not have the right in law to interview someone here in Jamaica. So, ultimately, they will still have to rely on the local bodies,” he added.

“The suggestion that there be a special force with a combination of the JCF (Jamaica Constabulary Force) and the JDF (Jamaica Defence Force) is not new. There have been issues with that in the past. We had the Special Anti-Crime Task Force, the Mobile Reserve in the past, and it would seem to me that that kind of policing is not very popular in terms of the outcome. It breaks down the trust and confidence in members of the JCF,” he said.

Champagnie said he agrees that sanctions for gun offences and criminal conduct against women, children, the elderly and the most vulnerable should be increased, and laws should be passed to allow for serious sanctions of persons dealing in firearms.

Burknell Stewart’s crime plan

1. Resume hanging with immediacy.

2. Elevate penalty for trafficking and dealing in dangerous drugs to life imprisonment.

3. Reduce extortion and street-level crimes by 50 per cent by targeting known gang leaders, foot soldiers and criminal networks.

4. Place sensitive organised crime investigations in the hands of an outside investigative body.

5. Reduce the financial burden of housing inmates. Commit all prisoners serving sentences greater than 30 days to hard labour.

6. Members of parliament should bolster community representation by using technology to facilitate virtual meetings with residents.

7. Help communities to identify and mobilise resources to eliminate the root causes of crime.

8. Establish a joint JDF-JCF special response unit in each parish to carry out special operations under the plan.

Peter Champagnie’s anti-crime suggestions

1. Aggressive prosecution of parents who neglect their children; re-imposition of truancy laws.

2. Mandatory CCTV legislation for all public spaces and businesses.

3. Amendments to the Firearms Act – mandatory minimum sentences for dealing charges; DNA and fingerprinting checks of all illegal weapons recovered.

5. Removal of all zinc-fencing settlements.

6. Institution of pre-charge bail proceedings.

7. Special incentives for security force personnel who recover illegal firearms.