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Crime – Jamaica’s long-lasting epidemic

ONE of the expected impacts of the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 measures was always the possibility of increased crime, as children are out of school, the distraction of parties no longer exist, and the economic restrictions no doubt have had a significant negative economic impact on many.

Combine this incremental COVID-19 effect with an already vibrant crime culture and you have what we have been seeing over the past few weeks. Three weekends ago we murdered 24 individuals over one weekend, the week after that we murdered five homeless people, and a week after that we murdered a lady while she prayed in church.

I say ‘we’ deliberately because until we understand that this is a societal problem – and the responsibility of all – then we will never solve the problem. It is not a problem for one Government, one police commissioner, or one community. What has happened is that we have created a culture of crime, violence, and disorder, just as we have created a culture of reggae music and dancehall. Until we understand that we have, for decades, purposely built this culture by way of our inadequacy to address the underlying issues, then we will never solve the problem.

This is illustrated by the two diagrams which were posted by political commentator, Kevin O’Brien Chang.

The diagrams show that murders have been escalating across political administrations, and different security ministers.

It also shows that the murder rate has trended upwards upwards since the late 1960s (and continues to do so), and started to trend upwards more quickly in the early 1970s. Since then, we have had spikes and some retreat from the highs.

What this means is that this has been a long-term trend associated with a cultural and societal breakdown, and not the result of any specific policy by any single Administration. It also shows that any claim about success by any Administration can at best be disingenuous, as a one-year downturn does not cause a trend, and more importantly does not make Jamaicans feel safe.

This implies that the focus on data can be misleading. While I understand that most murders are related to domestic and gang- related activity, this observation does not address the underlying challenge of finding a long-term fix to this “epidemic”.

Rather it makes it seem as the use of data seemingly justify why murder is high, looks like they are unable to address the root causes.

My own view has always been, and continues to be, that crime (including murders) is like a tree, in that it can only grow in a fertile environment.

So, in organisations you will hear people say that “culture will eat strategy any day”. In other words, if you don’t have good organisational culture then it matters not how good your strategy is, as culture is what makes strategy work.

Similarly, I can never understand why our public officials do not seem to understand that our culture of disregard for law and order is what drives crime. As my friend, Hardley Lewin said when he was the commissioner of police, “we have to address the factory that is producing the criminals”. So that even if you were to eliminate the current crop of criminals, we have an environment, or factory, that continues to create new ones.

The implication of course is that curfews and quick-response squads is not a sustainable solution, which is what we have been doing since I can remember. I can recall the numerous states of emergencies, Suppression of Crimes Act, Gun Court, ACID and Eradication squads, Green Bay and the list goes on.

But what we have not done is create a society of law and order. In fact, we have done the complete opposite, as we have allowed indiscipline on our roads, in our zoning laws, our night noise, and vending, as examples. Our policy over various administrations has been to create an environment where the ‘child is allowed to do whatever they want and then when they start acting out take drastic measures to punish them’, instead of creating the environment that teaches the child that respect for law and order is paramount.

We allow people to squat and play music as loudly as possible or the taxis to drive however they want. And then if someone complains or tries to do something about it then someone in Opposition says we are oppressing “poor people” until they are in Government, then they try to deal with the challenge and then the new Opposition says we are oppressing “poor people”.

The result of all of this of course is that we continue to lose an estimated 4 to 6 per cent of GDP to crime. And instead of solving the crime problem to create more economic growth, and to get us consistently over 3 per cent growth sustainably, we put new taxes on the people to close budget gaps, which has never worked – as seen when the economy started to do better with tax reductions under the Jamaica Labour Party Administration starting with the famous $1.5-million tax break.

Government and public officials may be tempted again to seek new taxes in this COVID environment, but that would of course be a mistake as it will cause further contraction in the economy. In fact, the optimal strategy in my view is to ensure more money gets into private sector hands for longer. This will ensure greater revenues eventually for the Government.

But this can only be an optimal solution if we address the law and order, and ultimately crime and murder, issues.

To do so, however, we must take bold policy decisions which must include enforcement of laws relating to vending, noise abatement, squatting, illegal construction, road indiscipline etc. In effect, the “broken window” approach was successfully implemented in New York. And, of course, if we want proper enforcement we must be prepared to pay the police more (and increase accountability systems) so that they don’t have to live in the same communities with the criminals they pursue.

The inability to do so, for me, is the real failure of governments and the police commissioners. Right now, it so happens that the present commissioner is the person with this responsibility and he must deliver, or be heaped on the pile of failure of the past ones, and define his legacy. If the Jamaica Constabulary Force cannot maintain law and order on our roads, then what confidence will the people have in their ability to address more serious crimes?

Dennis Chung is the author of Charting Jamaica’s Economic and Social Development , and Achieving Life’s Equilibrium . His blog is dcjottings.blogspot.com.

Email: drachung@gmail.com