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Once more, Jamaicans debate whether states of emergency are an effective crime-fighting tool or a band aid

Jamaican police patrol a community affected by a state of emergency on May 27, 2010. Photo by the BBC World Service on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

On the morning of Sunday, November 14, Jamaicans were surprised with the news that Prime Minister Andrew Holness would be holding a press briefing on “matters of national importance.” Some media houses were quick to speculate that the focus would be on crime.

Holness’ announced that states of public emergency had been imposed that morning in seven police divisions, including in Montego Bay and two other parishes in the west of the island, and four police divisions in the capital, Kingston. The restrictions cover approximately one-third of the country and will remain in force for two weeks, after which time they will have to be reviewed by parliament.

States of emergency in Jamaica are nothing new. Between 1962, when the country became independent from Britain, and January 2018, the government imposed six major states of emergency. Two of the six were in response to natural disasters, the others to crime.

In April 2019, states of emergency were declared once again for the same three western parishes currently under lockdown but were lifted ahead of the country's 2020 general elections.

At the briefing, the prime minister noted that murder rates in the affected areas had increased between 16 and 57 per cent this year. Major Antony Anderson, the commissioner of police, added that as of November 12, Jamaica had recorded 1,240 murders for 2021, COVID-19 curfews and lockdowns notwithstanding. The four Kingston divisions accounted for 32 per cent of that figure, with 392 murders. 272 people had been killed in the three western parishes, making up 22 per cent. Anderson stressed that these numbers did not include the 11 murders that had taken place in the previous 24 hours, nine of them in areas that had been placed under states of emergency. Anderson also noted that a surge in gang-related murders and reprisal killings, fueled by extortion, scamming, and the guns for drugs trade with Haiti, accounted for a little over 70 per cent of homicides.

While Prime Minister Holness pointed out—not for the first time—that Jamaica's murder rate was three times the regional average and eight times the global average, the presentation was not all about numbers. In what was at times an emotional address, Holness stressed the psychological impact of escalating murders on Jamaican society:

Every Jamaican would have recognised that the nature and frequency of the violence have evolved to a level of barbarity and a level of savagery; it is almost a competition for cruelty; the worst of the worst. It appears to be designed and properly calculated to drive fear into the citizenry of the country and panic in communities.

Holness was referring to a recent spate of grisly murders that had sparked anxiety among the public in recent weeks.

These latest emergency measures are being imposed against an interesting legal backdrop: In September 2020, Jamaica's Supreme Court ruled that the detention of five young men during a previous state of emergency in the summer of 2019 was unconstitutional. The human rights group Jamaicans For Justice called it “a historic victory for Jamaican human rights,” but the government appealed the ruling.  The case is still before the Court of Appeal.

In a tweet posted three days after these latest states of emergency were imposed, Jamaicans For Justice called for “legitimate and sustainable crime-fighting strategies,” stating:

The prime minister responded to such critiques during his November 14 address. “Should the government be crippled by an academic debate about the constitutionality of the measure while people in Jamaica are dying?” he asked, adding that “every society must have powers to deal with exceptional circumstances and emergencies.”

Holness went on to note that his administration was, in fact, reviewing current anti-crime legislation and expressed regret that “the government has to jump through hoops” and that “it takes too long” to implement stronger measures. He also claimed that ongoing “political debates” and “consistent ambivalence” had stymied previous efforts to make the states of emergency work.

University of the West Indies lecturer Damien King took offense at the prime minister's “academic” reference, tweeting that:

King also refuted the argument of public commentator Kevin O’Brien Chang:

Responding to a question from the press about human rights concerns, Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte said that “substantial” changes had been made to the regulations in response to concerns raised since 2018, and not everyone detained during a state of emergency would be charged with an offence.

One social worker, highlighting the country's endemic “societal inequalities,” echoed comments by the opposition that the upper classes were not affected or inconvenienced by such measures:

The Opposition People's National Party pointed out that there was much legislative work to be done to address crime and violence:

While the private sector cautiously welcomed the measures, one well-known psychiatrist noted on Twitter that a state of emergency was not a sufficient response to Jamaica's culture of violence:

Ironically, just 48 hours later, an attack on participants attending a violence reduction workshop in one of the areas under a state of emergency, underlined the intractability of the problem. UNICEF Jamaica tweeted:

And European Union and United Nations representatives in Jamaica issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for government violence-reduction programmes such as the Spotlight Initiative, which tackles gender-based violence.

Touring the parish of Westmoreland on November 18 following the murders of a police constable and others, the prime minister asserted that, despite these incidents, the states of emergency have already “dampened” crime, leaving some to hope for more thoughtful dialogue on crime:

Although bipartisan discussions have taken place over the years, they have yielded little results to date.

The fundamental concern among Jamaicans remains: Do states of emergency actually work? This tweet from Jeanette Calder, director of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal, appeared the sum up the reactions of many in the country:

A Jamaica Gleaner editorial also suggested that the current measures represented “a damp squib that carries the risk of being thrown out by the courts, which, ultimately, leaves the country in a somewhat precarious position.”

Over the next two weeks, the Jamaican public will wait and see. In spite of the short-term dampening effect noted by the prime minister, expectations for the long term do not currently appear optimistic.

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