What is more important than saving lives?

At a recent press conference several stakeholders gave their perspectives on the recently declared states of public emergency (SOEs).

Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) President Keith Duncan had this view:

"If the police commissioner and the JDF [Jamaica Defence Force] commanding officer recommend a state of emergency (SOE), who am I to say that there should be no SOE, if the professionals recommend it. When I walk into these communities and I hear the people say they feel safer as a result of a state of emergency, that they can now actually feel some freedom to walk the streets, then I have to be supportive of the state of emergency, and the PSOJ is supportive of the state of emergency."

Police Commissioner Major General Antony Anderson commented:

"I remember doing a tour with Superintendent Margie Jones in the Kingston Central Police Division. We were on George's Lane. There were some young men on the side of the road, and there was a conversation where one of the young men said 'Why don't you put an SOE in place and pick me up and all of us? Listen we are fighting each other." Because he had lost his son the day before. He said, 'The people I am fighting are people I went to school with. We were friends, we used to eat all out of the same plate. As long as we're out here we're gonna keep killing each other, so why don't you do this.'

"I'm not making this up. That fellow is dead. He was buried today. That's all reality. This is real life today. And perhaps he wouldn't be dead had we done what he said, because that is a feature of a state of emergency. I've not been anywhere where the people who live it say they don't want it. The only people I've heard say they don't want it are those people who do not live it, and so when you get these actual things, where the person himself self confesses... The person involved, he didn't go to the extent to say 'I'm a gunman,' but from what he said it was clear. But he and his rivals and friends he wanted detained, so that they could get that time to just cool off, because as long as the shooting is going on they will continue."

Chairman of the Crime Monitoring Oversight Committee (CMOC) Lloyd Distant said:

"From CMOC's perspective, when the SOE was called I immediately reflected back to the consensus document itself, and what it said about the use of the military within which the ZOSOs [zones of special operations] and the SOEs were contemplated. There's no question in my mind that the statistics that we've looked at in those seven divisions would have certainly exceeded the benchmark we use, which was 32 per 100,000. As the Commissioner would have said earlier, what we're seeing in Jamaica is multiples of the regional average of 16, and well above the 32 per 100,000 that we saw. So, from my perspective as the chair of CMOC, the committee itself would have acknowledged that extraordinary intervention would have been warranted."

Only three times since 1962 has the Jamaican murder rate fallen by over 20 per cent and stayed down for at last three years — the aftermath of the 1980-81 'civil war election'; the 2010-2011 SOE; the 2017-2018 SOE. So there can be no question that SOEs have worked to cut murders. And they are working now.

Police statistics show that comparing November 6 to 14 when there was no SOE, to the SOE period of November 15 to 23, murders fell from 23 to six — a 74 per cent decline.

If we could sustain the same measures and murder declines seen in 2018 SOE for two straight years (assuming 2022 murder count is similar to 2021) murders would fall below 1,000 in 2024 (897), as Table 1 shows.

Two years of a state of emergency is hardly unprecedented in democratic countries. After all, democracy means responding to the will of the people within the boundaries of the law. After the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, France had a state of emergency, renewed several times, for two straight years. Those two years gave legislators space to put new enhanced security laws in place, while keeping the populace safe. France has not had any serious terrorist problems since. See https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2017-11-29/france-state-of-emergency-officially-ends-as-new-security-measures-come-into-force/

The arguments that SOEs are unconstitutional hold no water. The one element ruled unconstitutional is no longer used.

There is no question that the public welcomes the current SOEs. Since 2010, the vast majority of Jamaicans have supported SOEs, and called for their longer use. In 2010 there were some abuses. But the police have become a much gentler and kinder force since. Annual police killings have plunged from over 300 a year to about 100.

At a recent police stakeholders meeting, well known public affairs commentator and community activist Henley Morgan talked about the tremendous improvement in the relationships between the police and regular citizens over the past five years or so. In fact, he said the current rapport between the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and the Jamaicans they are supposed to serve is probably the best in our history.

No more do we hear demonstrators shouting, "We want to justice" and "Police brutality" almost every night on news broadcasts. There were few complaints about excessive force by the security forces in the 2018 SOE. Now when incidents happen, as the recent shooting by a soldier of a suspect who refused to obey orders and drop what he was holding, there is a prompt investigation.

Every time since 2010 that an SOE has been declared, homicides plummet. We see no more murder headlines in newspapers or leading stories on TV or radio. Jamaicans feel more relaxed, and everyone seems happier and in better spirits. We felt it in in 2010 and 2018. We are feeling it now.

As it stands, unless at least one Opposition senator supports their extension, the current SOEs will all end after two weeks. Private sector and civil society groups have implored the Opposition to do so.

"On November 25, 2022 the Senate will debate the extension of the states of public emergency (SOEs) until January 14, 2023 in the select parishes where SOEs were declared on November 15, 2022.

"This broad-based grouping of private sector and civil society supports the extension of the SOE and urges the Senate to pass the extension on the condition that the Government addresses outstanding key issues critical in achieving full Opposition's support, until January 14, 2023, in the select parishes where SOEs were declared on November 15, 2022."

Of course, there are other measures that need to be put in place. SOEs are a necessary, but not sufficient condition to make Jamaica safer. But when you are the world's most murderous country, the first step of any crime plan must be to stop the slaughter.

As this article is written, the outcome is unsure. Will the Opposition listen to the cry of the people? If they do, kudos to them for showing political maturity. But if they decide not to support the SOEs' extension, despite this massive show of national unity, Prime Minister Andrew Holness will have all the political capital he could ever want to bring another order to Parliament for two more weeks of SOEs, and to keep doing so indefinitely as long as murders keep falling.

What is more important that saving lives?

Kevin O’Brien Chang is an entrepreneur and public commentator. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or kob.chang@fontanapharmacy.com.

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Kevin O’Brien Chang
Kevin O’Brien Chang

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