Editorial | Major General Anderson’s big challenge
Neither the security minister, Horace Chang, nor the police chief, Antony Anderson, will be happy with the results of last week’s opinion survey showing devastatingly low levels of confidence in their leadership, and more broadly, in the constabulary. They, however, should not be surprised by the finding.
Rather, it would have been startling, given the state of crime in the island, if the figures – over 90 per cent of Jamaicans say they have little to no confidence in either man – were otherwise. But as chagrined, or as unfairly treated, as they may feel, what Dr Chang or Major General Anderson must not do, if they intend to stay on the job and make a difference, is respond with hubris, or scorn the findings as the views of the ignorant and ill-informed.
To gain the public’s trust, they have to work. That requires showing results in crime reduction. But not in the see-saw fashion that too often is the case in Jamaica. Further, in accomplishing this, Jamaicans cannot be left with the sense that the institutional and democratic norms they cherish – respect for fundamental rights and freedoms – are under threat. Dr Chang and Major General Anderson, therefore, have tough decisions to make to put right the organisations they head, which enhance the efficacy of the institutions.
Put another way, these poll findings should be a cause for personal reflection and reviews of policies and strategies, which should include the opening of genuine dialogue with stakeholders, with feedback loops. Dr Chang and Major General Anderson have also to really listen.
The upside for both men is that very few Jamaicans, if any one, believe that their jobs are easy. Few of their predecessors have in recent decades emerged with improved reputations at the end of their assignment than when they began. After all, with more than 1,300 murders annually – around 50 murders per 100,000 – Jamaica has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. The authorities blame a large proportion of these killings on competition between gangs in furtherance of criminal enterprises, or long-term feuds, the origins of which are long forgotten.
CRIME COMPLICATED BY INSTITUTIONAL FAILURES
But crime in Jamaica, or the solving of it, is complicated by institutional failures that fuel scepticism of, and erode trust in, the very bodies that are responsible for law enforcement and the prosecution of criminals. Among these issues is the evolution of a deeply tribalist political culture, an offshoot of which is the corralling of voters into zones exclusive to one or the other of the big political parties, and maintained by muscled henchmen.
This form of politics may be in retreat, and the credibility of our elections now widely acknowledged. But the old order’s residue still enmeshes communities. Inheritors of the old enforcement regime have, to a significant degree, mutated into today’s independent criminal enterprises and thuggish crews that hold whole areas in thrall. The situation is exacerbated by newer forms of criminality which, notwithstanding that it preys on external victims, contest each other domestically for the resources that enable their enterprises.
Fundamentally, Jamaica faces a profoundly systemic crisis of crime and criminality, the overhaul of which requires extraordinary political and technical leadership, underpinned by a national consensus. The low levels of trust Jamaicans have in the country’s leadership, writ large, and the institutions of the State, insist upon it.
For instance, the 2021 survey of ‘Attitudes to Democracy in the Americas’ by Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP research laboratory found that 55 per cent of Jamaicans believed corruption to be rife in the country. While 57 per cent said they supported democracy, only a third of the population believed their rights were protected, and 46 per cent said they would tolerate a coup if it meant rooting out corruption.
Similar, or worse, perceptions of the country’s institutions are replicated in other studies and surveys. Transparency International’s global corruption barometer for 2019 found that 78 per cent of Jamaicans believed corruption to be widespread, with half (49 per cent) saying that the situation had worsened over the previous year. Of the state institutions highlighted in that survey, half of Jamaicans believed that most, or all, members of the constabulary were corrupt, followed by legislators (44 per cent) and government officials (39 per cent).
It is against this backdrop that Jamaicans view criminality. Which lends to their perception that despite short periods of decline in crime, criminals can behave with impunity because they are facilitated by the agencies of law enforcement and politics. On the face of it, overhauling the police force should be easy, yet it remains impervious to fundamental change.
Indeed, over decades, the effort, despite changes around the edges, has defeated successive police commissioners, including talented people recruited from outside its ranks. Obviously, Jamaicans are coming to that conclusion about Major General Anderson, who came to the post with a stellar reputation as a former head of the army. Now, after four years, 46 per cent of Jamaicans say they have no confidence in him; 45 per cent repose only a little.
Some analysts explain that faced with demands for change, critical elements of the police force close ranks to frustrate the efforts. Faced with the day-to-day problem of crime, police commissioners, even when they have grand visions, analysts say, arrive at an accommodation with the dissenters, or are appropriated by the existing order.
The constabulary’s leadership is constrained by the realities of a political system. Those in government view the police force as a critical arm of support, which they are disinclined to offend. So, the really tough and radical stuff – such as the recommended exorcising of a critical mass of members and the reconstitution of the organisation – never gets done. Or it happens too incrementally to be effective. Major General Anderson should be fulsome and frank about his ideas, and the challenges he faces.
These are policy actions, with political consequences, that are outside the day-to-day operational realm of the police chief. The core reform of the police force now is primarily focused on the introduction of technology, which, in time, should bring greater transparency and, hopefully, accountability to the force.
But it will not for now, and for a long time, address the underlying culture of the police force, which, ultimately, conditions people’s confidence in the institution. The poll findings should cause these matters to be placed on the table for a frank discussion, and the political actions that are required, if there is to be real transformation. Otherwise, someone else will come and face the same public perception that now confronts Major General Anderson. The ball, really, is in Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ court.