Towards trust between the police, citizens

Monday, July 17, 2017

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Older Jamaicans remember a time when violent crime in urban centres such as Kingston and Spanish Town seemed a world away from deep rural communities.

Among the more alarming aspects of crime in today's Jamaica, is that very few communities, if any, now feel safe.

Over the last 20 years, once-peaceful parishes have suddenly found themselves among the leaders in terms of violent crime, due in large part to the growth of gangs with their rackets and scams, matched by a proliferation of illegal guns and ammunition.

Yet with all that, a few parishes, St Elizabeth — among them, have been able to maintain relatively low crime rates — relative, that is, to the situation in the rest of the country.

It has to be considered that while St Elizabeth, a parish of 152,000 people according to the Social and Economic Survey 2016 — had “only” 11 murders in just over six months up to last Thursday, in many countries that rate would be considered alarmingly high.

Nonetheless, given that across Jamaica at the year's halfway mark there were close to 600 murders, we readily understand the satisfaction of outgoing police divisional head in St Elizabeth, Superintendent Lanford Salmon that under his watch the police “did well”.

Mr Salmon must now move to Westmoreland, right next door to St Elizabeth, where the crime situation is entirely different. In Westmoreland, a parish of just under 146,000 people, murder numbers are many times that of St Elizabeth.

Here is something that social scientists with a ken for such enquiry should probe. What are the elements that could have resulted in such an extreme difference in the experience of violent crime between two parishes located right beside each other?

It could be that the discussion at the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation last Thursday, as Mr Salmon said farewell, partially, if not completely, explains it.

We note that the mayor of Black River, Mr Derrick Sangster hailed the good work of the outgoing police chief “not only in terms of normal police duties, but in terms of your outreach programmes, your town hall meetings and consultations — where you have been very, very active in terms of reaching out to the citizens of respective communities, seeking to embrace communities, and urging residents to work with you in dealing with crime”.

Of course this newspaper is aware that, all over Jamaica, the police high command has been trying to reach out to communities. We wonder, nonetheless, whether, in terms of actual implementation, there was a qualitative difference in St Elizabeth.

Mr Salmon makes the point that there must be trust between citizens and police. We know that lack of trust is a major problem afflicting crime fighting.

In this space, this newspaper has consistently argued for comprehensive action at the community level so residents can be more confident in supporting the police. We believe that communities must be organised with the help of national leaders, including the political directorate from all sides, champions of business, heads of churches, et al, not just by talking, but by showing the way at the grass roots level.

All that said, we will watch with interest to see if Mr Salmon and his team will be able to make a difference in Westmoreland. We wish him well.

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