Mon | Jan 21, 2019

Garnett Roper | Blunting the knife of last resort

Published:Sunday | May 6, 2018 | 12:15 AM
Garnett Roper
Hardley Lewin has cautioned against the overuse of states of emergency.

Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin has once again indicated the danger of the cavalier use of states of emergency. He has argued that the imposition of a state of public emergency is the ultimate tool in the law-enforcement arsenal.

States of emergency ought to be declared when the circumstances are of such that none of the other tools available to the State can suffice in order to restore public order and public safety. In this regard, he contends, as he had in a letter to the editor on January 22, 2018, when the state of emergency in St James was first declared, that the special operations of the security forces did not require the imposition of the state of emergency in order to be carried out.

The most compelling point made by the retired commissioner of police and by retired chief of defence staff is that it is the power of preventative detention that is peculiar to the SOE. He argued further that this is an idea that the administration mooted in 2017 and in response to which there was public pushback.

Asked specifically by RJR's Emily Shields if soldiers can occupy the streets along with the police for sustained periods without emergency powers, Admiral Lewin indicated that Section 9 of the Defence Act that provides such powers has been signed by the minister of defence, who is the prime minister, to facilitate such involvement of the JDF every month for the last three decades.

If it is the case that without the declaration of an SOE, the enhanced security measures can be justified and implemented, why extend the SOE? If it is the case that SOEs become the new normal for law enforcement and for the public, they become blunt instruments that are ineffective. The extraordinary powers that they afford will become ineffective.

In practice, the two SOEs in St James and St Catherine North have resulted in the detention of approximately 4,500 persons. Both in St James and North St Catherine, only five per cent of those detained have been charged with criminal offences. This means that for nine of every 10 persons detained, there is no justification that the law supports.

The suspension of habeas corpus has been a tool used to deny young black males in this country of their human rights. To thinking people, this is a throwback to a time when black people had no rights - when the Vagrancy Act was the tool the planters used with the stipendiary magistrate in support to force black people to work on their plantations.

Worst than that, the powers of arbitrary and preventative detention have, in the past (with the overuse of the Suppression of Crimes Act), and will in the long run, embitter a segment of the population. It will produce a more hardened and dangerous criminal.




There is a lesson learnt by the science of correction (the rehabilitation of inmates). The more brutal the conditions of incarceration, the higher the rate of recidivism and the more violent and dangerous the ex-convict. This is why we have changed from penitentiaries to correctional facilities.

If one surveys the broad sweep of the Jamaican society in recent days, there are increasing ways in which contact between the Jamaican State and the people at the base of the population is one of monumental disrespect. The people are not treated with respect. There is a kind of take-it-or-leave-it, you're-nobody approach when we treat with ordinary people who do not have front-page appearance and are not well connected.

This is certainly what I found in talking with the vendors of the Constant Spring Market who have been told that the market will be destroyed shortly and that they should find somewhere else to go. Some of these people have been selling in the market since 1965. Many have inherited the business from parents. They have put their children through college and this is the way they know to earn a honest bread.

It is this same disrespect for the ordinary people that is behind the ready resort to extreme and extraordinary powers of detention, to scrape of people off the street and warehouse them in inadequate facilities.

The SOEs in St James and St Catherine North have made their point: It is time to take an approach to crime fighting that is more sustainable, that considers the causes and the consequences. It is time that we pay attention to the antecedent circumstances that give rise to crime.

There are too few economic opportunities leading to employment in the collapse of agriculture. There is too little space properly pointed for them to trade. There is not enough social security and social investment in this society.

Nothing gained by extraordinary measures is sustained without them. Anything gained by measures that are not tinged with a sense of justice for all and with a commitment to the common good and for the lot of the poor will be succeeded by what is worse than what it sought to fix.

- The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Email feedback to and