Editorial | Warmington’s clear-eyed analysis
Every so often, Everald Warmington’s innate good sense triumphs and he displays a capable mind. This was the case in Parliament last week. Mr Warmington launched a scathing analysis of the state of public emergency, which have become the crime-fighting strategy of choice for the Holness administration, of which he is a member.
Specifically, Mr Warmington focused on the constituency of South West St Catherine, for which he is the member of parliament (MP). But his arguments could be extrapolated to the approximately half of Jamaica’s 19 police divisions, where these measures are in place. His essential thesis, stated and implied, is that it is Jamaica’s underclass, including the unemployed and working poor, in inner-city communities that bears the brunt of states of emergency. Further, the measures, as employed, have begun to deliver diminishing returns.
When you take Mr Warmington’s argument to its logical extent, another of his conclusions is that the security forces, to the extent that they have had successes, could have achieved the same results, and perhaps more, without these extreme measures that have the potential for encroachment on people’s constitutionally protected rights and freedoms. These are issues this newspaper has previously sought to explore, without the necessary critical engagement by the security forces or the Government.
They have, thus far, failed to provide the public with full, continuous operation data from the states of emergency or the specific elements of the arrangements that when employed, make them successful.
The first of these states of emergency was employed in St James in early 2018 when Jamaica was, as it is again, in the throes of a crime wave. In the previous year, homicides had increased by 20 per cent, to more than 1,600, and were maintaining that trend. In the aftermath of the impositions, murders declined nationally by 22 per cent. More dramatic, though, was the 70 per cent reduction in St James, which had reported 335 murders in 2017, when the parish’s homicide rate reached over 180 per 100,000.
It is understandable why the measures were popular, and the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) was sharply criticised for its withdrawal of support that deprived the Government of two-thirds parliamentary majority required for their continuation beyond early 2019. They have since been reintroduced and areas of coverage widened, grudgingly supported by the Opposition.
Even as the Government continues to celebrate the efficacy, and success of the measures, homicides edged up by three per cent in 2019 and are rising at a faster clip so far this year. Which brings into the spotlight Mr Warmington’s observations as well as the issues about which this newspaper continues to seek clarification.
What most Jamaicans associate with the states of emergency are the heavy contingents of soldiers and police in their communities, the checkpoints, and the spot searches of individuals and vehicles. They believe, as we do, that this, especially during the early period of deployment, is a deterrent to crime.
Yet, there is another more significant element to the schemes: the power that the security forces have to detain persons without having to take them before the courts with any urgency. This is an authority to trespass on cherished constitutional rights. The Constitution presumes the sparing use of this measure and sets a high bar for their deployment and retention. The authorities, however, do not regularly, or fulsomely, provide information on how these powers are used or offer any analysis of what elements of emergency measures work best.
It doesn’t require the declaration of a state of emergency, with its authority to derogate from fundamental rights, to deploy police or soldiers in communities. Regular legislation allows for that – and for the kind of intelligence-driven, surgical operations that Mr Warmington said are not taking place in his constituency, in which homicides are increasing.
“I believe that we need to go back to the days when we have curfews and shut down areas from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., for an entire week,” the MP said. “Go inside there and search the area and you will find the guns.”
Mr Warmington may not be right on all the points, but his intervention invites reflection from his colleague policymakers on two fronts. One is the need for extreme caution anytime they contemplate measures that might impinge on fundamental freedoms. The second is whether the use of the states of public emergency for long has made the measures routine, causing the security forces to be less strategic in their application. That is a grave danger.