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Jamaica's crime crisis… how did we get there?

Removal of Suppression of Crime Act partly to blame for climb in homicides

Jason
McKay

Sunday, September 24, 2017

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The most discussed topic in our country, and rightly so, is crime. It has the greatest impact on the lives of Jamaican citizens — not just victims or relatives of victims, but that large group of people trying to avoid becoming future victims.

It also has an extreme economic effect based on the cost of maintaining organisations to combat it, and the equally costly agencies that serve as investigators to police the activities of the police.

There is also the opportunity cost, which occurs as a result of Jamaica's reputation as one of the murder capitals of the world, in particular the impact a title like this can have on tourism earnings.

With the significant importance given to this subject, I think it is worth doing a total academic study of how we got here.

Prior to the 70s and the undeclared civil war of this period, Jamaica was a relatively peaceful country, even though gang culture had gained momentum from back in the 60s.

In 1974, as a result of the unprecedented levels of violence, Jamaica introduced the Suppression of Crime Act that not only empowered law enforcement to levels equalled only in Northern Ireland and apartheid South Africa, but created a culture of policing that depended heavily on the suppression of criminal elements. It bore little focus on human rights and significantly less on criminal rights.

Consequently, the reputation of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and international pressure collided and it was believed that a period of purging was due for the law enforcement organisation that had protected citizens for over a century.

So in 1993, the JCF introduced its first Commissioner of Police from the private sector — retired army official Colonel Trevor McMillan. That was viewed by the citizens of Jamaica as the first step in effecting a change from an almighty organisation to one which needed to be suppressed itself.

This took the form of removing popular police personalities who had fame only equalled by entertainers, and who struck fear into the hearts of Jamaica's most brutal criminals.

This experiment resulted in an almost 50 per cent increase in homicides between 1993 when the purge began to 1996 when Commissioner MacMillan stepped down.

I don't think this had anything to do with the personality or capability of Colonel MacMillan. It was simply a human resource reaction to persons who felt unappreciated and targeted by the very society they protected. Also, it was a demonstration of how Jamaican criminals operate when they feel that they have a friend in public opinion.

Despite what we may have learnt from the 1993-1996 purge, it was too late to save the society because we had removed the only mechanism capable of suppressing the gangs — which were now returning in droves from the USA — when we removed the Suppression of Crime Act.

Please don't think I'm saying that this Act was acceptable. But the reason its greatest critic at the time, Prime Minister Edward Seaga, didn't remove it in his nine-year tenure was because he realised the absolute disaster that would come if it was removed and not replaced with a logical crime-control mechanism that could replace this oppressive instrument.

The few choices were unaffordable, such as physical occupation of inner-city ghettos with the garrison component, and the inevitable destruction of the 'don' culture that was at this point too politically intertwined into our Government ('Jim Brown', etc).

The result was a constant, climbing, homicide rate that only plummeted when absolute suppression was levelled in the form of the Tivoli Gardens incursion, which created a long- lasting effect that gave us crime rates as low as 1,097 in 2012, coming from a period as high as 1,690 in 2009.

International human rights again became political policy and the era of suppression of crime took a downturn. Thus, then began the era recognising human rights as the primary concern of law enforcement and our society.

This included the second 'purge', when our legislators in 2010 created the INDECOM Act.

It empowered an organisation to be responsible for reducing police fatal shootings, whilst at the same time being the impartial investigator of fatal shootings.

The response of law enforcement organisations to this purge was much the same as when they were purged in 1993. The pressure pushed the significant police personalities underground and the response of the gangs was, as in 1993, to increase their activities — confident in the belief that they had a friend in Jamaican society, and the primary concern of our Government was their rights, not their suppression.

It is not so much a lack of understanding as to why our governments moved from “suppression of crime policies” to “human rights primary policies” as their emphasis. It is a lack of choice based on the international standards of human rights in the western hemisphere.

Based on our poverty level, we do not really have any choice but to adopt these changes, as we are dependent on international support which does not care that our criminal activity responds only to suppression or total occupation which prevents them from carrying out their desires.

In fact, the same international community is quite capable of barring Jamaica from purchasing arms and ammunition for our police army and private citizens. So we really have no choice.

My purpose is not to criticise, but simply to educate.

Jason McKay, MSc, is a criminologist.

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