Commentary: Jamaica’s tumultuous relations with its law enforcement officers

By DR Miller

Photo Credit: The digital Caribbean

The island of Jamaica both pre-and post-emancipation, according to many scholars.

These rebellions cover a range of issues from right to vote, political representation, basic education, property and even racism to free slaves who simply wanted to be left alone in the early to mid-1800s to calibrate, or working class having a good time.

The Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 was a major turning point between law enforcement and civilian relationships.

Those arrests by the police to quell disturbances and later convictions caused many Jamaican to develop a dislike of the police.

Jamaican Constabulary Force has since seen its officers, courthouses and police stations across the island attacked.

Today, it seems that law enforcement has been unable to fight off insults and resentment from the old wounds.

Today, a fight to gain social control is ongoing in a system that is riddled with criminals, debt and underdevelopment as most scholars have noted, except that, today, lethal weapons are now in the hands of criminals and law enforcement is outgunned.

In late 2017, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his public safety team declared a “Zone Strategy” to dismantle havens that harbour criminals and where an increasing murder rate has gone unresolved for decades.

According to local news reports, the operation identified high “criminal zones” to rid communities of violence (thugs) who often cause spike in murder, carrying out retaliation and fighting over territory with no regard for human lives and the rule of law.

Despite some support, few argued that law enforcement officers would aggressively lock up and kill the wrong people.

Combating crime is a contentious issue and this epidemic in Jamaica illustrates a pattern that is a delicate balance between politics and crime that has split some civilians against law enforcement.

Jamaica is not alone, other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America are facing this struggle, reports have shown.

“These targeted communities will be re-infected after officers leave that zone,” one argued.

Others choose to remain silent in fear of being classified as a snitch and later targeted.

Crime and social change will not come through legislation alone, nor after the camera has left.

Sadly, crime has contributed to high unemployment, and has created a wide gap between the rich and poor even to those who condemned the atrocities.

Today’s tremulous relationships are self-inflicted from distrust, unwarranted police killings, abuse of power, and lack of accountability, internal corruption, unanswered questions by several victims.

Law enforcement marriage in Jamaica is like walking on a high rope over a cliff without a safety net where fear, respect, hate, love, distrust, trust, overworked, under-appreciated even to qualification for leadership is a constant debate by many.

Although these relationships are rocky, law enforcement is the lifeline of these communities, and the country needs them.

They navigate between a banana peel, hopping pockets of stagnant water in 100-plus degree weather, overworked, underpaid while deterring crime and helping victims of crimes.

I do not have any data on what is the crime rate since the operation; success or failure.

I simply wanted to check back on the prime minister’s approach in 2017 to see what has changed since recent reports surfaced on how many more Jamaicans will die in 2018 from the number of deaths in early 2018 that has a trajectory for over 1,000 this year.

Most importantly, far too often, critical issues can quickly wash out to the sea like the roaring ocean while debris remains like squalid settlements.

This is not a time for blame game by few local officials.

While reform is necessary, the elephant is still in the room:

The high turnover rate of commissioners is problematic, and far too often stymies crime fighting strategies that are already in place.

The opposing party, despite their previous power, seems to have found reasons to dissent and not collaborate due to political ideology and indirectly they too are victims.

The police commissioner’s role in Jamaica, and to a broader extent in the Caribbean, is complicated.

They are tasked to solve crime woven in chronic poverty and politics, with a lack of resources and where violence is an ongoing systematic hurricane and no one, despite good intentions, has full support.

When criminals are being tipped off in advance of operations, who do you trust?

Both the community and few local officers off the record often have close ties to well-connected criminals and that alone complicates justice.

Can the prime minister get it done with these constraints?

Does Jamaica need a military?

Maybe merging these institutions can be a cost saving measure in shoring up the police force?

Jamaica does not have a border problem with any neighbouring countries.

It could learn from Costa Rica, which eliminated its military in the late 1940s and invested resources into education, public safety and public health.

Today, many economic scholars have written about a positive return from that strategy.

These communities should begin to speak up and stop treating lawless criminals who have exploited communities like heroes, or Robin Hood as depicted, “rob the rich and give to the poor.”

Zone strategy targeting high-crime areas is not a new concept in policing. Several armed forces have used targeted operations to end criminal enterprises.

Sure, it will not create more jobs the next day, lower taxes, or build better roads in one operation.

The fact remains, the nation is one of the most dangerous parts in this hemisphere.

The erosion of public safety is an economic issue if visitors begin to stay away from these communities in what is now a service economy.

If these crime-riddled headlines continue, no other positive international promotion will drive visitors to these shores.

Not even its favorite son, Usain Bolt, can run fast enough to attract potential visitors.

In fact, most of its famous and successful people do not live in Jamaica full-time and no one has declared if it is fear or a simple business decision.

Fortunately, beneath the rubble, a majority of Jamaicans are law-abiding citizens as in any other place.

But pockets of thugs, drugs and, high homicide rates, coupled with a dense future for many youths leaving schools, talk shows alone, twitter posts, photo-ops by leaders or selected town halls meetings cannot fix the problem.

If a high school dropout, unemployed, drives the latest motor vehicle, no trace of inherent income, lives in the most exclusive neighbourhood, 20-year-old Jimmy most feared on the block remains untouchable despite evidence of wrongdoing.

What message does that send?

Who is the voice for a high school girl sexually exploited, raped, or even killed for not complying with criminal demands and her family must stay silent because of fear.

What next: Local road blockades from criminal charging their own tolls?

With a stagnant economy, coupled with a vast mentality of denials, I am not sure who can fix this tumour alone.

Today, I wonder if it is time for a woman to lead Jamaica’s law enforcement community.

Jamaica Observer reported that only two women were fortunate to be named to the second highest position as acting commissioner.

In 2014, Novelette Grant was promoted to acting commissioner, and from the reports was instrumental in these latest operations.

This nation is one of a few Caribbean nations that have elected a woman prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller.

Despite the struggle of balancing gender, poverty, justice, corruption, and other barriers, she too has tried.

Several good intentions seem to have died under political strife and what I call the “colour of sabotage”.

The success or failure of implementing a strategy should not be about what party the appointees came from to lead.

Any mission to curb violence and lower the chance of becoming a victim is a good start and especially for those with deep roots outside the tourist protected zones.

Sure, some of us do not give a damn from the outside, and thank you in advance for telling us to “butt out” since we have our own crime issues.

However, it is not about location, or ideology, but safer communities, good economics and standard of living:

The Political Era

It appears that the Jamaica Constabulary Force operates under an old era in police history concepts according to experts.

The Political Era (1900-1940), where officers were tied to the political machine, less transparent, selectively reporting crimes, providing protection for influential groups and that often resulted in corruption and distrust.

Community Policing Era (1970 to present), which focuses on connecting all stakeholders, embracing other roles; including counselors and social worker as many criminal justice institutions have noted, this concept should be embraced or enforced to a broader extent.

Maybe if these high crime communities begin to select their own safety officials, rather than political appointments, this could create a smoother ride from the ongoing turbulent relationships.

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