Spiralling murder rate must be number one priority in 2018


Sunday, February 18, 2018

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It is quite troubling that more than 1,600 Jamaicans lost their lives in 2017 due to crime.

It is beyond politics and is a serious cause for concern that requires a multifaceted combined effort from every well-thinking Jamaican if we are to see a change, especially since the murder rate has been at a gallop since the year started.

The police figures show that up to February 6, 2018, 156 people were killed since the year started. Jamaica closed 2017 with 1,616 murders, one of the highest homicide figures on record.

St James continues to be the hotbed for murders recording more than 300 last year during the first quarter.

The approach we have taken in the past may not have worked, as we would have liked it to. Jamaica's crime monster still remains hard to tame. While our security forces try their best to manage the State of Emergency in Montego Bay, we have seen brazen incidents of gunmen attacking and killing people in broad daylight. This state of affairs cannot continue and we need to look at different approaches to solving our crime problem

In order to see tangible results from crime fighting, there needs to be short- medium- and long-term efforts that will uproot the crime problem. Here, I have put together three short- medium- and long-term goals that may help to change our current fortunes. I, too, want to see a better Jamaica.

Let's look at some short-term goals:

Boosting the number of police officers on the ground

Recent figures from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) website shows that the force has approximately 12,000 police officers. Of this amount, about 2,000 are based in offices, and include the commissioner, deputy Ccommissioners, as well as office staff.

About 500 members are on pre-retirement leave and another 500 are on sick leave. Another 800 are on interdiction, facing the courts or suspended due to pending court matters. This leaves about 8,000 officers who are on active duty and operational.

We would need somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 boots on the ground, at a minimum, as well as corresponding resources, if we are to keep crime at a manageable level.

Australia's population of 24 million people is policed by 7,000 Australian Federal Police Uniform Protection. They are reinforced by police officers in local municipalities, as well as State and territorial police.

As of June 30, 2012, state and territory police forces comprised a total of 51,778 sworn officers — about 228 officers per 100,000 (Data from Law Library of Congress). These figures exclude the country's coast guard and defence forces. Crime in Australia is also at an all-time low with a reported 238 murders in 2013-2014. That's one victim per 100,000 persons according to the national homicide monitoring programme.

These numbers give a fair idea of where Jamaica needs to go to in order to have the desired effect on crime.

(2) We must increase our security budget to provide resources such as security cameras, drones and other air surveillance. This will help to monitor and police crime hotspots.

(3) Similar to the State of Emergency, the Government should also ramp up border patrol security, if only temporarily, to conduct checks on vehicles leaving and entering the parishes in an effort to stem the flow of illegal weapons and also to check IDs of persons in vehicles.

Access points should be discreet at various areas, but not stable for persons to tip off suspects. There should also be an increased number of checkpoints to ensure that a fine search is conducted and that no suspect escapes.

(4) Last year I wrote an article suggesting a gun amnesty, and the subsequent amnesty that was done brought in a significant amount of guns. This, however, should not be a one-off activity, but ongoing to get illegal firearms off the street.

In the medium term, we have to look at strengthening the institutions which can help in reducing crime.

(1) We can strengthen the justice system to ensure that persons who are charged receive a speedy and fair trial. Cases brought to trial must be properly prepared. Police officers must have improved evidence-gathering skills and be able to truly assist the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in preparing cases that will result in a much greater rate of conviction.

(2) At the same time, we need to do more as a society to foster the clean-up of the police force, which will in turn encourage trust and faith in the police and the justice system.

We need to look at resocialising our people, even if from the nursery school level, as to the importance of playing a role against crime. A collective effort must engage the Education Ministry, the Labour and Social Security Ministry, the Ministry of Finance, the Police Services Commission, all churches, NGOs, and local groups working in communities.

(3) Churches, schools, youth clubs and training centres may be the most effective institutions in targeting inner-city youth who are most likely to turn to a life of crime and violence.

The Diaspora, in collaboration with the Government through its social services ministry, can offer incentives or support to churches and these other institutions to create programmes that will engage youth.

These incentives can fund activities such as choirs, bands, scholarship funds, or even skills training. An example of this is the success of the Red Stripe Foundation's bar training programme that guarantees jobs on successful completion of training. The best way to help inner-city youth is by offering them a sustainable livelihood that may have otherwise been replaced by crime. These activities will encourage good social behaviour.

(4) We also need to look at helping communities to organise themselves in finding ways to earn money.

Two perfect examples of how communities plagued by crime have transformed themselves through economic activity are in August Town and Trench Town. August Town and Trench Town have managed to turn what is colloquially referred to as 'ghettos' into income-earning zones, from the renting of rooms to people visiting Jamaica, as well as tertiary students seeking accommodation in the case of August Town.

Crime in these areas have significantly reduced. This was done specifically by listing spaces for rent on Airbnb as well as within the university community of Mona and Papine. Since the government has been pushing Airbnb and has an agreement with the organisation, efforts could be made to sensitise and prepare more communities to get involved.

So far, there are approximately 1200 rooms listed on Airbnb with estimated $1 billion Jamaican dollars earned for 2017. Last year, there were 54,000 bookings in Jamaica, and that number is expected to increase for 2018 presenting ample opportunity for Jamaicans.

In the long term, we must look at continuous training of our police officers to be prepared to manage any situation. The level of brazen attacks in broad daylight shows the dire straits we are presently in. We can look at other cities that have managed to keep their crime under control.

For example:

(1) Jamaica's crime rate is often compared to that of New York City. However, last year New York experienced one of the lowest levels of crime since the 1950s. In 2017, 286 people were killed in comparison to 2,245 in 1990, the most reliable record on file (New York Times). We could send some of our officers to train there.

(2) Include also special technological programmes in schools that are geared towards training young men.

(3) Another possible solution is looking at having a home guard structure, such as in the 1970s during the crime spike under Michael Manley. Or rather, we can simply appoint and empower district constables, as in the case with Australia where each state has their own police force. Each community can have their own guards. This will not only help to reduce fear, but also track any unusual happenings in certain communities. Incentives can be given to home guards such as equipment or salaries.

(4) Jamaica can also look at the success of its sister country, Singapore, which has a population size of fewer than six million people, but is ranked as the second-safest city behind Tokyo.

Singapore credits its low rates of crime to its non-tolerance for breaking the law at all levels, which begins from the simplest of offences such as zero tolerance for running red lights, bribery, and other petty crimes, to much more serious crimes such as murder.

Their violent crimes are really low and mostly involve weapons such as knives and box cutters. Tens of thousands of security cameras installed islandwide help policing efforts. The use of technology, such as this, results in greater detection and prosecution of crime, the greatest deterrent. The ability to catch miscreants thus allows the application of severe penalties. There has been a dramatic shift from the gang violence and violent crimes the island experienced in decades gone by.

(5) We also must look at a long-term strategy to gentrify communities such as Grant's Pen, by looking at what the areas need and help to remove zinc fence structures, restoring a semblance of dignity whilst raising the standard of living.

We have a lot of work to do and this is going to take more than the special zones of operations. We need effective measures to consistently fight crime before we can see tangible result, otherwise we risk celebrating another 50 years of independence retelling the same crime story.

Hugh Graham is a businessman and councillor of the Lluidas Vale Division in the St Catherine Municipal Corporation




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