Antony Anderson | JCF 151: a force for good for Jamaica
In its 151st year, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is facing significant challenges as it seeks to provide essential services to our country. During the past week (Police Week), the JCF has had a robust programme of outreach, particularly to the youth of our nation.
For the first time, a luncheon for the children of police officers who have died while serving was held and a medal presentation ceremony for those persons who have dedicated a great portion of their lives to law enforcement. I felt it was important to acknowledge the sacrifice these people have made in service to the country and the JCF. It is in this context and against the background of public conversation on the professionalism of the organisation that I write this open letter. It is important to provide facts and context to these discussions so that the public can participate from a more informed position.
First, the national context of violent crime, in particular, murder, must be established. The number of murders in Jamaica has increased every decade since 1960-1969 (855) up to the 2000-2009 (13,418) period and has seen a slight decline over 2010-2018 (11,257), which is likely to result in 2019 being below the previous decade. Year 2017 saw the third-highest recorded number of our citizens murdered following 2005 and 2009 (highest), with upwards of a thousand of our citizens killed annually since 2002 (with the exception of 2003, which had 975). This has kept Jamaica in the top five in global rankings for some time.
Perhaps it is the consistency of these figures that has allowed a general apathy around these deaths, which often have been reduced from the status of victims to that of numbers and statistics. So much so that other conversations easily crowd out this issue, and the language of crisis that should mobilise an entire population around the need to preserve the lives of our largely poorer persons and their families is reduced to a call for the police to do better.
This high level of murder has been taking place in our country for so long that we are no longer emotionally invested in these tragedies unless a child or elderly person is involved. The police are unique in that we must attend every one of these tragic scenes where the cries of grief of those left behind are heard by our members and felt deeply.
The JCF commitment to reducing violent crime, not only through operations but by investigations and arrests, is reflected in the clear-up statistics. This year, up to late November, the JCF has cleared up 561 murders of the 1,169 committed, and it is important to note that in our context, 'clear-up' means that an arrest has been made.
Violence breeds violence
The most consistent indicator of violence is a previous act of violence. Simply put, violence breeds violence like a virus. Our response to violence in Jamaica must reflect this reality, and the JCF, supported by the Jamaica Defence Force, through research, intelligence, and carefully considered responses, is managing and successfully reducing the rate of crime and violence in sustainable ways by creating safe spaces where violent acts cannot occur, hence the reprisals that follow also do not occur.
One of the strategies available in this time of crisis is the imposition of a state of emergency (SOE). The conditions of an SOE allow for our deployed officers to be more effective as time limits are imposed on movements, and it allows for the detention of persons who are known to be violent disruptive elements in the community.
At the initial stage of an SOE, large numbers of persons are detained for processing. This is a deliberate strategy. It is done to protect those who may be seen as informers and would be vulnerable if not taken in and also to allow the police to obtain information from people who otherwise could not be seen speaking to the police.
Additionally, it exposes those people who are unaccounted for, i.e., have no form of identification, not even a birth certificate. In some of these circumstances, the police have arranged for them to be registered by the RGD, PICA, and other agencies so they can be brought into the formal system and assisted. The majority of persons are processed and released within 24 hours.
Recent discussions in the media triggered by the report to Parliament by the public defender requires a response and contextualisation or we remain in danger of taking our collective attention from the victims of high violence and prematurely remove the state of public emergency. The parish of St James is currently experiencing a reduction in levels of intentional homicides (murders) not seen since 2003 and levels of shootings not seen since 2002.
The idea that prisoners are currently being held in inhumane and degrading circumstances or that masses of persons are still being held under the provisions of the states of emergency is incorrect. However, it is correct that the conditions in some of our lock-ups and stations are less than ideal and have been so for some time. Police officers and inmates find themselves in similar circumstances as when there is a sewage or wastewater problem, it affects both. A lot of work has been done at Barnett Street and at Montego Freeport to improve the conditions there since the beginning of the state of emergency.
Murders in Jamaica are down this year by more than 21 per cent, and while I applaud this trend, we cannot be complacent and behave as if we are out of a state of crisis. No country can witness the murder of more than 1,000 of its citizens and not continue to do everything at our disposal to staunch the bloodletting.
If we believe that the right to life is the most important right, I urge our leaders in Parliament not to resile from their belief and commitment.
Outside of the immediacy of responding to violent crime and murder, the JCF's presence is required everywhere, touching or influencing the lives of Jamaicans constantly. The 12,000 sworn officers who comprise this force show up for work every day to serve a population of around 2.8 million. It is required to be immediate and considerate and to operate at the highest levels of professionalism and integrity.
INDECOM reports reveal that to this point in 2018, they have investigated 571 complaints against police officers. These investigations have resulted in recommendations for five charges to be brought, i.e., 0.8 per cent, and 23 instances of disciplinary action have also been recommended (four per cent). There is always room for improvement, but it is important that the facts are correctly presented so that the public can make informed judgements.
What is often construed as a lack of law-enforcement effort is quite often actually a lack of consequence of those efforts. For example, in traffic violations alone, the JCF issued 468,256 traffic tickets since the start of 2018, seized 7,874 vehicles, and served summonses on 8,477 offenders.
With more than 500 persons with upwards of 200 or more tickets and some with upwards of 700 tickets, it clearly means that 700 times law enforcement has been carried out on that individual, but to no avail. The actions of the JCF are constrained by the legislation under which the offences are listed, which do not currently allow the JCF to confiscate driver's licences under any circumstances or vehicles unless under specific conditions. The offenders who are arrested have largely been fined and released to continue to accumulate tickets. We at the JCF share the frustration of the public.
Despite the challenges, I want to assure the people of Jamaica that the men and women of the JCF endeavour to give the best of ourselves in service to individuals and communities as we are cognisant that without an effective police force, we cannot have the country we all wish to live in. The JCF must work harder to gain the trust of the Jamaican public, and where our members fall short of the high expectations we place upon them, there will be swift and sure consequences. The reform of the force is ongoing. No transformational journey is a straight line or a quick fix, but we are making sure-footed progress.
At the core of our service to the nation is the defining value of being a force for good, which underpins our efforts to give greater service to the people we are proud and sworn to serve, protect, and reassure.
- Major General Antony Anderson is Jamaica's commissioner of police and former chief of defence staff of the Jamaica Defence Force. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.