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72 hours to a safer Jamaica

Published:Friday | October 9, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
Martin Henry

You would have seen the ad appearing here and there: "One Nation. One Mission. We are one team working together to make Jamaica a safer place. Let's work together." A dozen agencies falling under the Ministry of National Security are featured. If only advertisements could make us safer.

The national security and justice ministries, tasked with the most basic purpose and function of any government - maintaining law and order, ensuring public safety, protecting life and property, and delivering of justice, have never been anywhere near adequately resourced to deliver on these responsibilities. The Government has embarked upon a very sensible early start to the Budget process for the next financial year, 2016-2017. This has included a Cabinet retreat and the first members' debate in the House of Representatives. I might have missed it, but I didn't hear any member calling for increased public safety as a top national priority. I would welcome receiving notice of any such contribution and the text of the presentation.

Just as how we can put off building a new prison for another 20 years, which, by the way, is vital to law and order and justice, rather than accept an 'insulting' British gift, we can continue to dance around crime reduction, having normalised high crime rates, as we have normalised dehumanising conditions in our few ancient overcrowded prisons.

Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding is advising Government to pull together all of its technical agencies, plus the leadership of the private sector and the multilaterals to seriously analyse what is preventing investment from taking place.

Well, we've been there, done that, at least to some extent. One very well known answer to the Golding riddle is crime, and, more generally, the atmosphere of lawlessness and disorder within which this country seeks to do business.

I want to beg of the Government again to give national security top priority in the next Budget cycle. It is an economic issue. It is an educational issue. It is a social issue. It is a human rights issue. So top slice a small percentage of everybody's budget and repurpose it to maintaining law and order, ensuring public safety, protecting life and property, and delivering of justice for all across all portfolios. We can't continue to have bloodbaths like last week's two double murders of two sets of sisters in central Jamaica, as well as the six persons killed and four wounded in Campbellton, Hanover.

We need to secure our oceanic borders from gunrunning and drug trafficking with more patrol boats. Our officers in uniform need more equipment and facilities. And we absolutely need more of them, perhaps twice as many. We need more capability for intelligence-driven policing and far more forensics capacity. We need more courtrooms and more judges and judicial staff. And we absolutely need more prison space. Lots more.


Living in fear

In the meantime, there are some things that the men and women in that safer Jamaica advert can do to, in fact, make our country a safer place, along with the 18,000 or so members combined in the JCF and the JDF. It is a travesty for the commissioner of police to be telling the good people of Portland, or any other parish, not to be alarmed over a spike in murders in their parish. We are all living in fear in the land of I-Could-Be-Next.

People advertise because they know it works, at least when done right. The police mobilise for saturated street coverage at Christmas because they think it works. And then they retreat to stations and offices until next Christmas. The ad says, "Let's work together." So I have a word of citizenly advice to offer to those whose job it is to keep us safe: In 72 hours, three days, for a start, Jamaica can visibly start to become a safer place. With measurable reductions starting to happen in murders, extortion, scamming, praedial larceny, robberies, traffic violations, public transport violations, vending violations, environmental breaches, noise abatement violations. The whole gamut of crime, lawlessness, and disorder.

The security forces, by simply being there, need to take back the towns and streets of Jamaica, the public spaces which the public authority controls. There is a psychology to crime and lawlessness which is very well known. People will push the limits and do what they can get away with without being apprehended. But people also, to an overwhelming degree, yield to visible and serious authority. And people modify their behaviour from observing exemplary cases of punishment.

Our security forces, with full respect for human rights, on a day not to be announced, must move to take control of the town centres and commercial hubs and transport centres of our major townships by sheer presence. Almost as a military operation. They must control with presence the known urban crime hotspots. They must take out of circulation crime leaders and gang leaders on even minor but stickable offences. They must police the softer quality of life laws as well, which will not only improve quality of life but send a massive national signal of seriousness of intent in restoring law and public order.

We will need roaming rapid response backup units. The minister says that western Jamaica is to have a permanent Mobile Reserve base soon. Very late good move.


Fix justice system

The creaking justice system, as is, cannot handle all of this new pressure which aggressive policing would thrust upon it. Which is one reason that serious policing isn't seriously attempted. We need some radical measures. While we await a new prison, part British-supplied or otherwise, we have to consider amnesty for short- and medium-term low-risk prisoners who have done more than half of their time. We have to think of temporary facilities better than Tower Street and Spanish Town.

The courts will have to do a lot more non-custodial sentencing. And while not the main purpose, more fines will contribute to desperately needed public revenue.

But even more radically, we should freeze all old cases in the system beyond a certain cut-off date and in certain categories to be properly determined and free up court time for the fresh new cases coming in from the safer Jamaica operation.

We will need to appoint more magistrates who can sit for court under a tent in the yard of the police station.

For maximum psychological impact, not to mention maximum justice, the doctrine of habeas corpus should be strongly reinvigorated. Accused persons should be taken before a magistrate forthwith and their cases disposed of in the shortest possible time fully within the law.

Those nice people in the safer Jamaica advertisement say, "Let's work together". Well they must make 119 work better. With every citizen having two cell phones, we must be encouraged to call in lawbreaking information with the double assurance of security and quick action.

Nothing brilliant, or even new, in all this. The minister having sought divine intervention, we now need bold human intervention beyond advertisement talk which is not cheap. And good results will start pouring in inside 72 hours of launching Operation Safer Jamaica along the lines I'm advocating.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and