Fixing the little things could lead to sustainable reductions in violent crime

Fixing the little things could lead to sustainable reductions in violent crime

Christopher Burns

Saturday, May 07, 2016

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It is funny as hell to see how easily we forsake our staunch ‘cynic traits’ to make way to celebrate big announcements of projects, albeit from the same clique of architects and builders of the very cynicism we have come to rely on and cherish. Perhaps the collective glee, promptness to celebrate announcements, alongside our insatiable appetite for grandiosity are strange ways of instilling and maintaining hope against all odds.

The downside to our near collective keenness to celebrate ‘grand announcements’ is that it robs us of the opportunity to agitate for, focus on, and target the "little things" that will make huge and positive differences in our lives and country. By little things, I am not talking merely or exclusively about courtesies that come with social grace. No, I am not limiting "little things" to such etiquettes as "Pardon. Excuse me, please; because ‘Howdy and tenky nuh bruk no square’…" These courtesies are important, especially in preventing disputes and determining conflict resolution outcomes. However, by themselves, they cannot reduce crime.

Fixing the little things that could lead to sustainable reductions in crime and violence include improvements in the social and economic environments in which we live, work and raise families. Little things, like adequate potable running water, proper sewage disposal, reliable garbage collection, functioning streetlights, clean markets, traversable roadways, accessibility to police stations, ambulance and fire services (just to name a few) are vital to the survival of societies.

Hassle-free ability to pay taxes is certainly a "little thing" with gargantuan impact on collecting State resources; simplification of forms is another "little thing" we must fix, post-haste, if we are serious about "doing business" and empowering small businesses to develop and prosper.

Fixing the little things will make huge differences in the lives of the citizenry, knowing that when they dial "119" there is always someone on the other end of the telephone line to answer and to dispatch emergency vehicles and personnel to assist. Fixing the little things will make a heck of a difference, positively so, when one turns on the pipe and clean, drinking water flows therefrom. It will make a tremendous difference when people can move about, unencumbered by ravine-like potholes or fear that as they navigate treacherous roadways in pitch darkness they could fall victim to criminal miscreants or "pop" their necks as a result of falling into a precipice, because of the absence of functioning streetlights, protective walls or guardrails.

I am speaking about little things like functioning traffic lights, close-circuit televisions, sidewalks and ramps for the disabled and little children, prominent road signage and civil-service-operated constituency offices. It is way too difficult and cumbersome for constituents to access resources through their members of parliament. By the way, once the elections are over, it is incumbent on the member of parliament to serve all members of his constituency without preference for political stripes or bias toward supporters. Fixing the little things, therefore, requires all constituency offices to be painted in the colours of the national flag — not party colours.

Make no bones about it, fixing crime and violence requires more than laser focus on the ‘little things’, since they are not the only root causes of everything that breeds crime and violence in Jamaica. However, it is difficult to ignore the symbiotic relationship between adverse socio-economic conditions, joblessness, antiquated physical infrastructure and the propensity for some to resort to, or commit crime, or act violently, however unnecessary.

On Friday, July 11, 2014, the
Jamaica Observer published a story giving an example of how a life bereft of self-worth, due to poverty, could create anti-social behaviour later on in life. The story was accompanied by a rather graphic photograph, under the banner ‘Close to the Edge’, showing a child defecating "dangerously close to the edge of a gully in the inner-city community of Majesty Gardens in South West St Andrew". From the picture, it is quite clear that the child is being socialised to accept that defecating in a gully is acceptable, especially in the absence of a private or public latrine.

The funny thing about that story is that the outrage continues to be influenced largely by class and geographical divisions. An ‘up-towner’, for instance, sees it as purely despicable, while a fellow inner-city dweller finds it understandable, given the brutal social conditions and physical space in which the kid lives. Chances are, this kid could very well mature into thinking that it is acceptable to also urinate or have sexual intercourse anywhere. He could grow to accept that it is fine to throw his trash and dispose of other solid waste wherever and whenever he has a mind to; thus, unknowingly contributing to societal disorder.

What if the communities and the local government were to form alliances to increase awareness, build and improve sanitary facilities throughout the country? This one "little-thing initiative" could change the mindset of an entire generation to see everything wrong with improper disposal of human and solid waste. It does not have to cost a ton of money either, because projects like these should be marketed to communities as "sweat-equity" projects.

Recently, we have been making a huge ado about economic growth, growth czar, "stepping up the progress", moving people from "poverty to prosperity" and the whole nine yards; but the crusades of grand announcements and special schemes have deliberately left out correcting (fixing) the little things that could help drive economic growth, ramp up the progress and move people from poverty to prosperity in a sustainable and meaningful way.

Though disappointed, I am not surprised by our almost instinctive penchant to "dream big", worse so because our approach to development has always been to ask the relevant questions post-implementation, instead of pre-implementation. With all the talk about making Jamaica great, about benefiting from growth in health and culture tourism, it remains to be seen how we are going to accomplish any of this without fixing the little things that can have the greatest positive impact on the largest cohort of people on whose shoulders we intend to build and achieve economic growth.

It is the same kind of socialisation backlash, as proffered in the preceding story about the little boy defecating in the gully, which caused Lennox Wallace, chief public health inspector at the St James Public Health Authority, to bemoan the unsanitary conditions at the People’s Arcade in Montego Bay, St James. He could not help himself, as he blamed vendors and residents who occupy the close to 500 shops at the rodent-infested facility for "disposing human and solid waste into the drain..."

Drawing parallels between poor social conditions and the propensity for anti-social behaviour, commander of the St James Police Division Senior Superintendent Steve McGregor warned of increases in criminal activities that the terrible social and physical conditions in and around the Montego Bay could foment.

Though largely experimental, and manifestly a weaker version of James Q Wilson’s ‘Broken Window’ Theory, I believe when people feel good about themselves, their families, communities, friends, and country, the less likely they are to display anti-social behaviour. An individual who feels good about him or herself is less likely to dispose of human and solid waste into the drain. Instead, the inclination would be for the individual to use the appropriate means of disposal. However, if his or her general surroundings are filthy, overgrown with foliage, full of massive pothole-riddled roads, dilapidated houses and burnt-out shop fronts, the greater the likelihood of becoming that which he knows and is accustomed to — not clinging to negative stereotyping.

The Government, through the legislature and the executive branches, can help with fixing "the little things". For, in the same way it has created the super-sized Ministry of Economic Growth and named an ambassador plenipotentiary for economic affairs, it should have rebranded, expanded and renamed the Ministry of Local Government the Ministry of Little Things.

The Ministry of Little Things should then be given the security portfolio, along with housing and works. But, why go that route? some would most likely ask. Mayors are far more powerful than members of parliament; therefore, they have greater autonomy to effect change at the local community level, a breeding ground for disorder.

In a highly functioning society, owners of the dilapidated housing stock similar to those that feature prominently throughout many inner-city communities in Kingston, St Andrew, St James and elsewhere in Jamaica would either have to tear them down, repair them or have liens placed on them by the State due to abandonment. If it is that the owners have died, have no intention to reoccupy, develop or lease, then the State must act through Eminent Domain laws, especially in situations where these buildings threaten public safety, to protect the safety interests of the people. People are living under dangerous conditions and in terrible circumstances in the inner cities of Kingston, St Andrew and St James.

God help us in the event of an earthquake or a powerful hurricane. Thousands of lives are at risk, because we do not spend enough time focusing on, or fixing the "little things". We do not have to announce grand schemes or mega projects, many of which require massive loan inflows and money we do not have nor can afford, just to appear be effective.

Furthermore, veneers of prosperity are as ephemeral as they come; the real McCoy is in doing those little things that could have a positive impact on as many people as possible, sufficient to cause them to modify their attitudes and behaviours in line with the majority.


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