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Leave race, class biases out of crime-fighting strategies

Published:Thursday | October 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM

THE EDITOR, Sir:

On October 3, Dr Carolyn Gomes and I, on behalf of Jamaicans for Justice and the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition, using Peace Management Initiative (PMI) data, made a presentation to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organizations) Act, 2013, popularly called the anti-gang legislation. I want to summarise here for the public the gist of that presentation.

The ministries of National Security and Justice are well intentioned in putting forward the said legislation. To be able to slap a criminal with the further charge of a gang-organised crime heightens its gravity and will support demands for a heavier penalty. This is understandably a desirable objective for law-makers. Criminal organisations must be fought.

However, as an attempt to cope with the present and ongoing crisis of murder in Jamaica, this effort is deeply flawed and will fail to have a countering effect. We made three points.

LOW-LEVEL GANGS IN CROSS HAIRS

1 The anti-gang law will be employed by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) to deal not just with the criminal organisations that, according to Professor Anthony Harriott in his GraceKennedy lecture (2009), number only about 20. (Getting at these groups requires the kind of investigative ability that the JCF has, in fact, only weakly displayed.)

JCF's real target is the rest of the "200 gangs" it claims to have identified. In its three "generations" of gangs, these are the lowest level, the so-called "street gangs". They are the species of corner crews that the PMI has named 'defence crews' because their objective is not illegal wealth or power, but community protection.

JCF's argument is that these crews are "manipulated" by the criminal organisations and usually graduate to their level, and regrettably it appears that the security and justice ministries have bought this argument.

With its more than 11 years of experience, coupled with 20 months (2011-2012) of research under the Institute of Criminal Justice and Security of the University of the West Indies, the PMI rejects that argument. Its research did identify one set of defence crews (in Whitfield Town) that for a while went the way the police described. But the general run of defence crews across the city are staunchly community groups, not criminal gangs engaged in rape, assassination, extortion, trading in guns or drugs or illegally gotten commodities, not miniature Shower Posses.

STRATEGY OF REPRESSION

2 This anti-gang law is part of an approach to crime and violence that has ruled Jamaica for the past 50 years, a strategy of suppression or repression. It is consistent with Jamaica's race/class divisions and with the paramilitary tradition of the founding of the Jamaica Constabulary Force in 1866. Community policing was initiated in the early 1990s. But the paramilitary approach remains dominant.

This approach wears various faces - laws/acts such as the Suppression of Crimes Act of 1974, which had to be repealed in 1993; Bail Act of 2010, which was struck down a year later; now the present anti-gang legislation; special squads, over a dozen of them, some abandoned, replaced by others.

But the strategy remains essentially the same.

Paramilitarism has, in fact, grown stronger in the JCF in recent years. Consider:

the increased number of fatalities at police hands, an average of 245 a year for the past seven years, many very questionably legitimate; the public defender viewing 44 of the 76 killed in Tivoli Gardens as likely to have been extrajudicial; 172 this year up to September 24;

police wearing masks on operations;

senior police in one division issuing death threats to community leaders;

five police organisations appealing a Supreme Court ruling that supports the power of INDECOM to arrest and charge police officers.

But consider this chart showing the inexorable climb of murder (Caribbean Human Development Report 2012, edited by Professor Anthony Harriott). The murder climb is even more stark if carried back to 1962 when murders numbered 63.

One cannot but conclude that the suppressive approach has failed to stem the tide of murder and shooting. This is notably evident in west Kingston where, even after the removal of Christopher Coke, gang activity is rampant. We hold ineffective policing, coupled with the failure of the state to adequately address the socio-economics and politics of many lower-income communities, to be responsible for the current crisis of violence and murder. A different strategy ought to be looked at and tried widely. A different preventive strategy already exists in pockets.

OTHER CONCERNS

3 Among the many specific articles of the proposed legislation that disclose its repressive character are the following few:

a) The definition of criminal organisation (Section 2), which by its very width will allow for the inclusion of defence crews, as shown by comparison with the parallel Canadian Criminal Code (Section 467.1 (1)), which specifically excludes grouping for the occasional commission of offences, and by its use of the much broader phrase "unlawful activity" (Section 2 (b)) rather than criminal (as earlier defined).

b) Law-enforcement officers being allowed to use civilians to apprehend alleged gang members (Section 2).

c) The failure in the statute (Section 2) (where it would matter in a court of law) to define "serious offence" (which is what a criminal organisation commits) - there is only a reference to a long list of such in Schedule 1.

d) Gang membership determined, among other ways, by "association" with members of a criminal organization (Section 6, (3) (b)).

e) The criminalising of the use of tattoos and other symbols (Section 15) (with which gang or crew activity in Jamaica has not been linked) threatening freedom of association and expression.

f) The threat to artistic creativity from likely police interpretation of a possible reference to a gang, gang leader or gang activity in a song (Section 15).

g) Hearings in camera (Section 18 (2)) and restrictions therewith on the press (subsections (3) and (4)) to be the norm contrary to the Charter of Rights, Section 16 (3), which only allows it where national security would be at risk.

In summary, beating down one section of our population, our black lower-income inner city and inner-town people across this island, will not stop the violence and murder. The problem is one of community, not gangs. Everyone whose glasses are not tinted by the paramilitary tradition and race/class bias sees this. Would that our Government would put aside, for one moment, the paramilitary guidance of the JCF and its own class and racial prejudice!

HORACE LEVY

halpeace.levy78@gmail.com

JCF's argument is that these crews are "manipulated" by the criminal organisations and usually graduate to their level, and it appears that the security and justice ministries have bought this argument.