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Jamaica’s New Anti-Crime Strategy Gets a Cautious Thumbs up, at Least for Now

A Jamaica Constabulary Force vehicle spotted in Spaulding, Jamaica. Photo by Jason Lawrence, CC BY 2.0.

It has been a long, hot summer for the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). The island has been reeling from an intense and sustained increase in crime — primarily murders — which now total over 1,000 for 2017.

The crime wave has understandably created increased anxiety among Jamaicans. August has seen the highest number of murders this year — the most since the 2010 security operations in Tivoli Gardens.

UNICEF Jamaica tweeted some disturbing statistics:

Public concern has grown, not only over the number of young murder victims, but also over the stress and trauma that children in volatile communities endured over the school vacation. As the new school term starts this week, worry is also mounting over the possible impact this may have on their ability to function normally and focus on learning.

One young writer even posted a Facebook video regarding the murder of a fourteen year-old, her own age.

On September 1, 2017, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced the first “Zone of Special Operations” (ZOSO) to be established in the district of Mt. Salem, near Montego Bay, an area where gang warfare has been steadily increasing over the past three years.

What's a ‘ZOSO'?

To understand the current situation we need to backtrack a little, to mid-July, when Governor General Sir Patrick Allen signed off on the cumbersomely named legislation, the Law Reform (Zones of Special Operations) (Special Security and Community Development Measures) Act, 2017.

In essence, the Act allows the prime minister, on the advice of the National Security Council, to declare any high-crime area of Jamaica a zone for special security operations and community development measures. Cordons and curfews will not be permanent features of ZOSOs, rather, they will be implemented in the short term. An important provision of the new law is for a Social Intervention Committee to be established in each ZOSO. This committee will assess conditions in the zone, including physical infrastructure, health conditions, housing and other social amenities.

There was a six-week pause after the legislation was passed at the close of the parliamentary session, after an intense 12-hour debate in the Upper House. Parliament then went into recess, while security forces underwent training for the ZOSO. During this period, Opposition Leader Peter Phillips became increasingly vocal about when the first ZOSO would be announced, while there was much media speculation on which troubled community the prime minister would select on the advice of his National Security Council.

In the interim, the Office of the Prime Minister shared information on the Act via a social media posts:

Since the September 1 announcement, the prime minister has kept up a continuous flow of tweets and posts providing updates and information on the ZOSO. He visited Mt. Salem on Sunday with a formidable team, including the area's Member of Parliament (MP), the Attorney General (AG), the Minister of National Security and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The politicians even interrupted a game of dominoes:

One tweeter sarcastically observed:

(Gordon House refers to the Houses of Parliament.)

Leaks, hotlines, and political shenanigans

A major concern emerged on Twitter, when one media house accused another of leaking the information about Mt. Salem ahead of the Prime Minister's announcement — thus potentially giving criminals warning to leave the community. One listener commented:

Perhaps inevitably, some political mischief got in the way. A flyer — allegedly from the opposition People's National Party (PNP), offering a free hotline and other “benefits” — turned out to be fake:

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister tweeted:

The Opposition has, however, established its own telephone line — quite apart from the official ZOSO number — to assist citizens in the area who may have complaints related to human rights abuses by the police or military:

While some questions remain regarding aspects of the plan that have not yet been implemented, ZOSO (which immediately established a social media presence) shared details about substantial rewards for the recovery of weapons, ammunition and for information on wanted men at a Sunday press conference by the Prime Minister and security officials, broadcasted live on Facebook:

ZOSO also shared photographs of the residents of Mt. Salem interacting with security forces:

Will crime migrate?

Will the declaration of a zone simply push criminals into another area? Blogger Dennis Jones observed:

Many security operations in Jamaica have tended to create what I term ‘whackamole’ situations, where crime is ‘tackled’ in one area, only for it to move its centre to another area. How good the security forces will be in avoiding that will need time to assess.

…One hopes that not only will the spate of killings decline rapidly, and stay down, but the finding of perpetrators needs to also increase significantly, if the local population and the nation are to believe that things are really changing in terms of criminal justice. For example, it’s all well and good to cite the number of murders in Mount Salem in recent years, but how many were ‘solved’ and where are the culprits?

University administrator and columnist Martin Henry echoed his sentiments:

Our security forces, with full respect for human rights, must move to take control of the town centres and commercial hubs and transport centres by sheer presence. September morning, as the children head back to school, would be a great time. The forces must control with presence the known urban crime hotspots. 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.

ZOSOs, on their own, especially if too few, are very likely to produce the balloon effect of pushing crime into other areas. Let's do it right this time and tackle this national public emergency on a broad enough front, in a sustained enough manner, and with enough resources provided for real success.

Human rights activist Rodje Malcolm was concerned about the issue of freedom of movement:

Nevertheless, the Jamaica Constabulary Force sought to reassure the public that ZOSO would be very different from the Tivoli operations.

There were some minor complaints from residents, mostly relayed via the media. Some were concerned about not having any ID to show the security forces (a new national ID system is to be introduced in the next year). One septuagenarian complained that he was prevented from taking his morning exercise:

Former public defender Greg Christie — who regularly tweets about human rights issues — was more positive, declaring:

(The GOJ is an acronym for the Government of Jamaica.)

Whatever their views or their political persuasion, however, one thing is clear: Jamaicans want to be rid of the spectre of crime, which has impacted many lives. One regular tweeter and media personality emphasised:

Hopes aside, the latest anti-crime program remains a work in progress.

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