Jamaican police under-engaged?


Sunday, July 22, 2018

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Hostilities occur when groups in conflict come in contact. These conflicts, when they result in combat, are referred to as engagements.

This is not to be confused with an armed conflict, which speaks to a description that has been legally designated to a particular geographical area. For example, you can say that the Cameroon region in Africa is involved in an 'armed conflict'. This is because the designation has been applied by a particular body on that geographical zone. That being said, Jamaica has never been so categorised.

When police officers challenge criminal elements resulting in combat it is called an engagement. This is common in the description of civilian law enforcement all over the world. The headline therefore is making reference to the number of incidents of law enforcement engaging criminals and speaks to 'under-engaged' because, as a comparison to other zones, we have a lower ratio of persons shot by police officers to persons murdered.

This may sound contrary to what you may have heard. Our statistics will show the population of a particular geographical zone and compare the fatal shooting of gunmen to the overall population. The statistics, however, take on a different appearance when you compare persons murdered versus gunmen shot during conflict with police.

In my view, this is a far more practical analysis, as police engagements with gunmen is likely to occur because of an increase in police operations. This increase occurs as a reaction to an increase in criminal activity, particularly homicide, so engagements therefore are one of several measuring sticks to gauge police response to increased criminal activity, particularly homicide. So let us compare.

Los Angeles was once the killing capital of the United States. This was largely due to the crack wars of the 1990s. At one point they reached a peak of 2,589 in 1992. The para militarisation of the police force and a reforming of judicial response to drug offences resulted in a massive reduction in homicide and, in effect, the imprisoning of the entire crack generation for at least their youth, but in some cases their entire lives.

This reaction to the crack epidemic has been criticised as far too harsh, but without doubt it saved far more lives than were destroyed by the mass imprisonment. I say this quite candidly because the imprisoned crack generation made a choice to participate in the drug world, whereas many of the innocent lives saved would have been innocent bystanders in drive-bys or victims of robberies by crack-crazed addicts.

How this relates to our chosen topic is to describe a city once gone mad to a city now under control. This control was demonstrated by homicide figures of 271 for 2017. An interesting observation, however, is the police response to this prescribed level of crime. Law enforcement shot 78 persons during armed confrontation with criminal elements.

Persons murdered to persons shot by police reflects a percentage of 28, or a ratio of approximately three to one. This measurement is important because there is an expected response by law enforcement when 271 persons are murdered, and this response is likely to result in engagements where persons are likely to be injured or killed.

Let us now look on Jamaica in 2017. We had a total of 1,616 persons murdered, while police shot 240 persons. This represents a response of approximately 15 per cent or a ratio of one person shot by police to every seven persons murdered by gunmen.

Note, I am using shot by police, not fatal shooting by police.

There is a lot to be said in this comparison to how serious a government is about preserving the lives of its citizens. There is also a lot to be said as to how we are marketing our true fight against crime. The reality is that persons are killed by the gun. If police officers are to engage the persons who kill by the gun, there is an anticipation of combat and a logical anticipation that the perpetuators may be shot, so we must ask ourselves what is the reasonable anticipation of what causalities are likely to occur if the police force is to engage persons who kill?

Do we really expect or desire that over 1,600 persons are murdered and there are no engagements between police and these killers. Or are we that simple-minded to assume that these engagements would result in no gun fights?

Therefore, we have to start analysing police shootings differently.

Firstly, we need to stop looking at fatal shootings by the police and start to look on persons shot and injured by the police, as fatal only speaks to a particular outcome, which could be impacted by many factors to include the quality of health care.

Secondly, we need to look on the amount of murders in a particular geographic area when we are comparing our police action and stop looking at population, as police respond to crime and not the size of the population.

Thirdly, we need to realise and accept that if we are to combat the gangs there are going to be engagements and these engagements are likely to involve guns, which will lead to gunfights and subsequent injury or death of gunmen.

Fourthly, our analysis needs to be in keeping with logical and relevant comparisons. How do we really compare with other countries that are fighting armed gangs? if we in any real analysis are reflecting a lower ratio than Los Angeles in murdered citizens to 'shot by police' ratios by a significant variance of three to one — versus seven to one — why is this statistic not published?

Just consider if Jamaica had a ratio similar to Los Angeles. We would have a 'shot by police' rate increase from 240 to 404, but this comparative is neatly hidden by local and international human rights groups, including the one masquerading as an independent investigative body.

So next time a press conference is held to criticise the action by law enforcement in Jamaica and a city is chosen, show us their murder to police shooting statistics and not the population to police shooting statistics, and stop assuming that every former colony of Britain is stupid.

Jason McKay is a criminologist.

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