PM paints grim picture of country's crime problem, declares SOEs in seven divisions

THE Government yesterday staunchly defended its use of states of emergency (SOEs) as an urgent tool to stem the tide of increasingly brutal murders across the island, with Prime Minister Andrew Holness painting a wretched picture of the savage nature of the killings which continue to cripple communities.

“It's one thing to commit the ultimate act of a murder, but when you start to see a devolution into what can only be described as the ultimate barbarity, savagery, a competition for cruelty, the worst of the worst, where you only see these kinds of actions happening in war zones, where someone can be beheaded and their heads used as a football [and] sent back to the families.

We are seeing an increase in murders, but we are also seeing a new trend of savagery and barbarity, in violence,” a strident Holness told a virtual press conference yesterday, where he announced the declaration of seven SOEs spanning police divisions from the east to the western ends of the island.

The SOEs took effect as of midnight, with police and military personnel deploying members as of 6:00 am Sunday. The affected divisions are St James, Hanover, Westmoreland, and the Kingston Central, Kingston Eastern, St Andrew South, and Kingston Western police divisions in Kingston and St Andrew.

The new SOEs were declared on the heels of a raging debate in Parliament in which the Opposition objected to the proposed amendments to the Emergency Powers Act (1938) and the consequential amendment to the Emergency (Public Security) Act (1939).

The Bill was subsequently passed by both Houses of Parliament, notwithstanding a pending challenge in the courts on the constitutionality of the use of SOEs as a form of enhanced security measures to deal with high levels of violent crime in the period 2017-2020.

The Government has appealed the Supreme Court decision, but has not imposed any SOEs since the ruling, until now.

Opposition Leader Mark Golding had expressed concern that the Government had brought the amendments to Parliament at a time when the constitutionality of the use the SOEs remained in question. He suggested the Act should, instead, be repealed.

Prime Minister Holness said all the divisions have seen increases in homicides ranging from 16 per cent to 57 per cent, all with murder rates ranging from 47 per 100,000 to 97 per 100,000, well in excess of the regional murder rate of 15 per 100,000.

“We have decided to recommend declaration of SOEs having regard to the increase in murders compared year on year both in the communities in which we have declared them and nationally. These increases we consider to be of an extensive scale such that they threaten public safety in the communities and nationally.

More than that, we have decided to declare the SOEs because of the nature and frequency of the violence surrounding the murders and other crimes,” the prime minister stated.

Police Commissioner Major General Antony Anderson said Jamaica's crime epidemic has raged on, despite continued police action against violent offenders, as well as the prosecution of criminal gangs and gang members.

“We have a murder rate that persists at three times the regional average and eight times the global average. Our murders this year have increased by 10 per cent [and] 10 per cent of a persistently high number, which means Jamaica's homicide rate remains within the top five in the world,” he said.

Added General Anderson, the nature of the murders is indicative of a shift in the level of violence, noting that gang killings make up 70 per cent of all the country's murders, while 19 per cent are attributed to domestic incidents.

“But there are other victims; those who are shot but do not die, and spend months in State medical care. Also, those who are left behind to fend for themselves and to mourn, and entire communities that live in fear,” he remarked.

One thousand, two hundred and forty Jamaicans have been murdered as at Friday, November 12, and another 11 were killed in the 24 hours up to yesterday.

Anderson reported that 392 Jamaicans were killed across the four Kingston divisions where the SOEs have been declared, representing 32 per cent of national murder statistics. Of the 1,100 individuals who were shot but not killed, Kingston and St Andrew accounted for 391 of them, out of the total or 36 per cent of the national figure for shooting and injuries.

Meanwhile, St James, Westmoreland and Hanover had 272 killings, representing 22 per cent of national figures, and had 214 shot and injured, representing 22 per cent of the total number shot and injured.

Of the 11 murders which happened between Saturday and Sunday, nine occurred in the divisions in which the SOEs have been declared.

The police commissioner said gangs responsible for killings are connected to the drug-for-guns trade, extortion, and scamming, and are financed from local and overseas criminal organisations.

Prime Minister Holness stressed that SOEs have proven effective in an immediate reduction of murders and violence in the communities in which they are declared, as well as surrounding areas. He argued that the Government would not be crippled by an academic debate on the constitutionality of SOEs, while murderers run amok.

“How is that normal? How is that not an emergency?” the prime minister asked, pointing to the per 100,000 murder rates.

“Should the Government be crippled by an academic debate about the constitutionality of the measure while people in Jamaica are dying? What do I say to the family of that young man whose head was taken and kicked around? What does the Opposition say to them? And should we allow more people to die while we satisfy ourselves about an academic [debate]?

“Every society must have powers to deal with exceptional circumstances and emergencies,” Holness insisted.

The Opposition has maintained that the Government should not rely on SOEs as a solution to violent crimes and needs to present the country with a comprehensive, long-term crime plan.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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