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Cops say handcuffed in combating power theft

Published:Friday | October 8, 2021 | 12:11 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter

The absence of adequate legislation and limited cooperation from the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) are hampering efforts by the police to clamp down on electricity thieves, a senior lawman has argued. The contentious matter, which has...

The absence of adequate legislation and limited cooperation from the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) are hampering efforts by the police to clamp down on electricity thieves, a senior lawman has argued.

The contentious matter, which has resurfaced in recent weeks amid allegations that the power company disconnects electricity in select communities for hours to counter theft, has left some legislators fuming as complaints from paying customers soar.

The JPS has dismissed the claims that this is a form of retaliation against electricity thieves, adding that the Government ought to do more to assist with bringing criminals to book.

The issue goes as far back as 2014 when the JPS disconnected electricity to entire communities where theft was rampant.

At that time, the company said that it tried everything to reduce electricity theft and was forced to cut power to communities with a record of abstraction topping 70 per cent.

Since then, the island’s sole distributor of power has called for the establishment of a special utility court to prosecute electricity thieves with approximately 180,000 people illegally extracting power and 129,000 customers in arrears.

Head of the St Andrew South Police Division, Superintendent Kirk Ricketts, has laid the blame at the feet of both legislators and the utility company while insisting that the police’s hands are tied with regard to enforcement.

“It is somewhat difficult for us to deal with this particular issue because of the current legislation that are available. It mostly depends on the cooperation of the JPS to address some of the incidents of abstracting electricity,” Ricketts said on Wednesday during a Gleaner Editors’ Forum.

He said, too, that the volume of theft in some communities has made it equally difficult for the police to make arrests.

He explained that occasionally, the cooperation of the JPS is sought for special operations where it is believed that an impact can be made in a particular community but suggested that this is not forthcoming because of the exigencies placed on the company’s loss-enforcement team.

Ricketts noted that the police are guided by two bits of legislation — the 1942 Larceny Act and the 1984 Public Utilities Protection Act — in making arrests but pointed out that they are limited in scope.

Section 15 of the Larceny Act says anyone found guilty of maliciously or fraudulently abstracting, wasting, diverting, or consuming electricity will be found guilty of a felony. The punishment is imprisonment with hard labour for a term not exceeding five years.

Section 3 (1) of the Public Utilities Act, meanwhile, says anyone who interferes with the work or any part of a utility company without consent will be subjected to a fine not exceeding $10,000.

Ricketts said the police are challenged by Section 15 of the Larceny Act, which requires technical support from the JPS when making an arrest.

“The police officer is not competent enough as per law to indicate that consumption is being made of the JPS utility ... . We need the JPS to indicate that this person is abstracting from us and to give us a statement,” he said.

With regard to the Public Utilities Act, Ricketts said that when an offender is taken before the courts, judges are unwilling to proceed without the participation of a representative from the JPS.

“For whatever reason, I suspect that the JPS could be, from time to time, overwhelmed with the volume and they might have other priorities ... but their input is obvious in us addressing the matter from the two legislations,” said the superintendent.

He said also that the punishment for abstracting electricity does not serve as a deterrent.

Up to press time, the JPS did not respond to Ricketts’ comments.

But former Energy Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley poured cold water on the cop’s assessment, challenging that legislation, or the lack thereof, was not the issue.

“If it’s legislation it takes, then we need to put in legislation, [but] I believe legislation is not the problem. I think we need proper enforcement,” he said, dismissing the argument that politicians are hesitant to harden their stance against the crime by strengthening existing laws.

It is believed that a high volume of electricity theft occurs in inner-city communities from which many legislators receive political support.

Opposition Member of Parliament for St Andrew South Western Dr Angela Brown Burke, in the meantime, said that while sufficient legislation must exist to address the issue, the Government should first establish a framework that takes into account accessibility to electricity and its affordability.

Sections of Brown Burke’s constituency, which consists of several so-called garrisons, have also been identified for pilferage.