353 fewer murders

Dramatic drop in homicides; constitutionality of SOE likely to dominate agreed meeting between Gov't and Opposition

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

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THE foundation for a political consensus on crime-fighting was laid yesterday after an invitation from Prime Minister Andrew Holness for a meeting was swiftly accepted by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips.

But even as both men agreed to talk, it was obvious that their poles-apart positions on the continued use of the state of public emergency (SOE) as a tool to combat criminality was set to add further fuel to the heated debate sparked by the Opposition's refusal to vote in favour of a further extension of the measure in Parliament last week Tuesday.

The constitutionality of the continued use of enhanced emergency powers granted to the security forces will most likely be placed high on the agenda of the agreed meeting. So too will Jamaica Constabulary Force data showing that 353 fewer murders were committed across the country between January 1 and December 15 this year, when compared to the same period in 2017.

The data, released on Sunday, show that in St James — where the first state of emergency was declared on January 18 — a total of 96 murders were committed over the period January 1 to December 15, compared to 322 for the same period last year, a reduction of 70.2 per cent.

In St Catherine North, where another SOE is in effect, 94 murders were recorded for the January 1 to December 15 period, compared to 133 over the same period last year, a decrease of 29.3 per cent.

In the other SOE areas — Kingston Western and St Andrew South — murders are down 25 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively.

Yesterday, Holness, in his letter to Phillips, said that after meeting with several stakeholders, including members of the private sector and civil society, the overwhelming position expressed is that the Government and Opposition should be united in the fight against crime.

“The sector representatives, as well as the general public, hold the view that Parliament should continue its support for the use of emergency powers to contain and control criminal activity that is beyond the capacity of normal law enforcement measures,” the prime minister said.

He said he was concerned that once again Jamaica will be denied the opportunity to bring crime under control, and argued that the current political disunity will only embolden criminals.

“In the spirit of unity against crime I believe we should meet before the expiration of the enhanced security measures to discuss your position and identify solutions that could help us to see our way to reaching consensus in support of the extension of the states of public emergency as recommended by the chief of defence staff and the police commissioner,” Holness said.

Phillips, while accepting the invitation, said that he and his team have met with several stakeholders, including private sector leaders, small business operators, church leaders, attorneys from western Jamaica, and civil society. However, in those meetings the Opposition did not find that there is an overwhelming consensus among the stakeholders that the use of emergency powers is the only way to control criminal activity.

“In addition, we have received advice from several constitutional experts that any extension of the states of emergency in current circumstances will be unconstitutional and illegal. We have not heard of a contrary legal opinion,” Phillips said.

He reiterated the Opposition's position that most of the powers available under a state of emergency are permitted under other legislation, which will allow for the implementation of solutions beyond usual law enforcement measures.

“We have always been of the view that effective crime control would benefit from a national consensus and have consistently indicated that,” Phillips said. “We therefore remain willing to meet with you, preferably along with other stakeholders to be agreed, to have discussions and to reach a consensus as to solutions to control the monster of crime within the boundaries of our constitution.”

The dispute between both sides escalated on Sunday when the Jamaica Observer reported Holness as saying that 20 of the 75 individuals still detained under the SOE in St James are some of the most dangerous criminals in the country, and that the Opposition's vote against extending the measure will result in them being released back into their communities.

“If you let them out, immediately the crime is going to jump. If you let them out and they can go back into the communities as they like, they're going to go out and kill witnesses, they're going to go out and take people's lives, they're going to go back to their mayhem,” Holness told the Sunday Observer, arguing that the security forces need more time to build airtight cases against the men.

He also rubbished the Opposition's argument that most of what is now being done to control crime in the areas under the SOE can still be done without the emergency measure.

However, Phillips, in response, accused Holness of being alarmist, highly irresponsible and petulant “because the Opposition responsibly exercised its constitutional duty to ensure that all actions of the Government conform to the rule of law”.

Phillips said that there are adequate laws on the books to deal with dangerous criminals who have either committed or are about to commit criminal offences.

He advised Holness to seek legal guidance rather than threaten that criminal elements will be unleashed, with the clear intent of fearmongering among citizens.

He also said all detainees under the SOE should have been held on reasonable cause and the country expects that in period of the SOE reasonable cause should have been converted into evidence, so charges could be brought.

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