Columns

Harriott, Ricketts and the toxic debate

BY JASON McKAY

Sunday, February 11, 2018

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The current debate between the two esteemed academics noted in the title, Professor Anthony Harriott and Mark Ricketts, has garnered national attention because of their opposite points of view. I believe it is the level of expertise of both men why the arguments have attracted so much attention.

Indeed, both men are senior to me in academia and Professor Harriott is a legend in the area of criminal research. Reflecting the utmost respect for the views of both men, I would prefer to contradict neither, but rather offer some facts and suggest what it could indicate.

Jamaica's highest-ever total for murders committed is in 2009 (1,690 individuals). Because of this fact, I like to use it as a base to conduct comparisons to other years. In this case I am going to highlight police action in our worst-ever year and compare it to 2016.

As 2009 was our worst-ever year for homicides, it is therefore expected that arrests would increase to a level that compares to crimes committed within a specific year. This is not to suggest that they would be equal, but rather to suggest that they would have caused more police action to be taken.

Despite the number of arrests being within the same range of 2008, the rate of arrests of individuals for serious offences is significantly higher in 2016. This occurrence is significant because by 2016, fundamental changes had occurred that put the police on the retreat and the gunmen in their best position since the mid-1980s.

The events I speak of is the victory of the human rights organisations in the creation of INDECOM that immediately put the police on their guard and injected a renewed energy into organised crime gangs.

Secondly, the Bail Act was revised, creating a revolving door arrest and custody culture. Yet, as I said before, the police arrest rate significantly increased; this occurring in an environment where the relationship between the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and the human rights investigatory body could only be described as toxic.

Whilst their performance improved in arrests, it also improved in convictions, reflecting a conviction rate for murders of 61 per cent for the calendar year 2017.

The police can only realistically be assessed on arrests and convictions, because anything else is likely to involve personal judgement criteria. This is not to say that the other areas that were tested and found lacking were not indeed so, but what really matters are arrests and subsequent convictions.

The reason that a study like this was even conducted is because of our spiralling murder rate. It doesn't matter to the public that every other crime is down, nor does it matter that approximately eight out of every 10 murders are considered gangsters killing gangsters. So for every problem there needs to be a villain. So why not the police?

The reality is that Jamaica is in a crisis that requires action that does not fit into a scenario of everyday policing. Better investigation won't help. The killers are already well known, but they competently take measures to limit the evidence that could lead to their conviction. DNA and other popular methodologies demonstrated on television are not usually applicable in gang-styled murders. You don't normally have sex whilst committing a drive by and, with the use of guns, biological exchange is limited to the victim and the perpetrators who don't have to be nearby.

Let us accept that the JCF was not constructed to police an environment of over 1,000 murders a year. This results in a case load on individual investigators that is more than some entire police stations in the United States. Some years ago a policewoman in the Southern St Catherine Division attached to the then rape unit, was given an award for having 92 active cases in front of the High Court. This level of case load occurs when police are 'working'. You don't get arrests by frequenting rum bars, and although this officer was outstanding, it is normal for investigators to carry massive caseloads.

Another indication of the amount of work being carried out is the case backlog in the courts. Massive crime by large gangs lead to many arrests by competent police. The end result is a court system bursting at the seams, but this could not occur if a significant amount of work was not being put in by the police.

Rather than introduce plea bargaining, maybe we should expand our court system with the money we could save by closing one or two of the organisations that investigate the police.

I think we all agree that the (JCF) is short of personnel and resources, and is currently at an unacceptably low citizen-to-police ratio. However, even with the (JCF) increasing by 25 per cent it will not stop the killing. Only when police occupy spaces that are gang-controlled can they impact killing in a particular zone.

For Jamaica to adequately occupy every gang zone to a point of prevention, you would need about 25,000 officers for occupational purposes alone. The rival gangs live zinc fences apart. If the police are not within 50 metres or less from a particular location, they can't prevent one idiot from killing another and disappearing into the abyss of zinc fences and shanty houses.

If tomorrow we are told that a hurricane is coming, the level of preparation won't be the same as if we were expecting heavy rainfall. What is happening is we are in the equivalent of a hurricane and applying the resources needed for rainfall. Neither is it practical to bankrupt the country so that we can stop what is primarily gangs slaughtering each other, although there is an unacceptable number of innocents who also die.

The solution lies only in a reintroduction of the Suppression of Crime Act or a state of emergency for the entire country. Both can work because they both possess the element of arrest without charge and allow the police virtual indefinite detention of known gang members.

The police force — based on the size of it versus the crime problem, and considering the imbalance of both, and taking into consideration the demotivating presence of vocal human rights groups and their ability to deflect their views to the press — is probably the most successful of the five most over-burdened Third World police forces in the world.

Criticising them for the spiralling murder rate whilst destroying the careers of commissioners and ministers of national security is the equivalent of blaming hurricane victims for being homeless. It is counterproductive and serves to demotivate a group that should be honoured as heroes.

As I have said before, stop thinking of our scenario as normal. It exists in no country without a civil war. When the Americans were faced with a new threat in terrorism in 2001, they introduced the Homeland Security Act because they realised that their system was not designed for this new threat level.

That Act was passed because they realised their system could not combat the threat. I am saying that with our present legal structure, we are never going to significantly impact the rate of murder in Jamaica. Let us respond with our version of a Homeland Security Act and start to wage war on the enemy and stop turning on each other, because the only peoplewinning are the killers.

Jason McKay is a criminologist. Send feedback to jasonamckay@gmail.com

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