Murder Tipping Point?
Published: Sunday | April 3, 2011

Investigators gather evidence at a murder scene where a man was killed by an angry mob, which placed a drum over his head. The man was murdered on Rosemary Lane in Central Kingston in August 2010. Murders have been on the decline since the military blitz on Christopher Coke's redoubt in May last year.-

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor


Lots of countries suppress bad news and exaggerate good news so as to put on a 'happy face' to the world. Jamaica must be the only place on the planet where the media trumpet national misfortunes and hide positive deve-lopments. Our press constantly refers to 73 persons dying in last May's Tivoli Gardens incursion, but remains silent about the subsequent 37 per cent decline in murders, which has, in effect, 'saved' more than 540 lives.

How can anyone who truly loves this country not exult when they see numbers as these?

It is simply inexcusable and unconscionable for the media to ignore our biggest sustained decline in homicides since 1981. A country whose lifeblood is tourism should be doing all it can to tell prospective visitors, not to mention foreign investors and Jamaicans looking to return home, that this country is now far safer than a year ago.

We also need a vigorous national debate on what has caused this fall, how we can keep it going, and what we must do to make it permanent. After all, what goes down can go back up. From 2002-2003, for instance, murders in Honduras fell by 41 per cent, only to reach new record levels by 2009. By contrast, the Colombian homicide rate fell by 41 per cent between 2002 and 2005, and sustained measures brought it even lower. Who do we want to emulate?

Bad news binge

On Tuesday, March 22, Bruce Golding revealed in a speech that murders in March, compared to the corresponding period last year, were down by a scarcely credible 64 per cent. Yet both prime-time television news shows focused not on this sensationally positive development, but on more Manatt 'cass-cass'. The Observer print edition didn't even mention the matter!

Incredibly, The Gleaner's 'Murders plunge' lead story the next day was its first front-page article on the topic since May 2010. I say 'incredibly' because when crime was soaring early last year, the paper ran a front-page murder count daily. But when the trend reversed, it apparently lost all interest in the topic. Of course, there cannot have been fewer than 50 Manatt front pages over the same period.

If you solve crime, you solve 90 per cent of this nation's problems. The 2007 World Bank study Crime, Violence, and Development ... in the Caribbean estimated that if Jamaican homicide rates fell to Costa Rican levels, our annual gross domestic product growth rate would increase by 5.4 percentage points. But here we are, maybe (knock wood!) on the cusp of a 1990s New York-like crime-tipping point, and our press is ignoring it!

The number of in-depth newspaper reports, columns, and radio or TV current affairs programmes dealing with crime since last June can almost be counted on one hand. Yet reams have been written and countless electronic hours dedicated to the Manatt circus. Not to mince words, our media entities are disgracing themselves on the crime issue. Journalists who are not reporting and discussing the important facts at hand are simply not doing their professional duty.

No story since June last year can possibly have been of greater national importance than 50 fewer Jamaicans being slaughtered each month. So you really have to wonder what is going through the brains of our media operators and practitioners, and what their priorities are. Let the cap fit who it may, if any. But can anyone with a shred of genuine patriotism put politics before the safety of the land they claim to love?

It's not just numbers, and a lady named Paula put it this way to me. "I'm not even thinking about crime anymore. I used to call my daughter at teachers' college every evening to make sure she was safe, but now I don't see the need to. I really like what the police are doing. As soon as any crime happens now, they seem to catch the criminals. And I can walk around in freedom downtown. Friends who used to be too scared now come there with me to shop regularly, because they feel safe, and they love the cheap prices!"

As for the political credit, well, both parties betrayed the country last July by denying the security forces' request for a state of emergency (SOE) extension. Had Bruce Golding immediately reimposed a new SOE - which 70 per cent of Jamaicans wanted - he would have taken ownership of the crime fall and have the entire country behind him, Manatt be damned.

JLP to blame

Who could have predicted, after the September 2007 election, that three and a half years later, murders would be down by more than 30 per cent, and yet the JLP would be trailing in the polls? Media bias or not, this Government has no one to blame but itself. Previous to the PM's speech, when was the last time any Labourite minister talked about this fall in crime? Don't bawl about victimisation when you are not even trying to help yourself.

No doubt, the main catalyst in the murder decline was last May's Tivoli incursion. It is weird how events played out to the nation's ultimate benefit. Had 'Dudus' Coke escaped to Venezuela, or been quietly extradited and shipped out, his deputies would likely have taken over his organisation, and carried on murderous business as usual.

But then Peter Phillips shouted 'Manatt' in Parliament. And the United States (US) started taking away visas, which led to civil society making an unprecedented call for the prime minister's resignation. Which practically forced Bruce Golding to have Dudus' extradition order signed. Then Coke's last stand brought hundreds of gunmen into Tivoli to defend him, with police stations being attacked. The resulting police and army assault destroyed through Coke's formerly impenetrable stronghold, rounded up many hardened criminals, and seized dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. And instead of crime exploding, as feared, it plummeted. The 'dons help keep murder down' argument has been forever discredited.

Just as important as the dismantling of Tivoli was what came after. The state of emergency was indisputably crucial in keeping criminals on the run, and its extension would likely have cut murders even further, by preventing incidents such as last August's Tredegar Park massacre.

The police have subsequently been relentless with curfews, cordons, and intensive search operations, leading to the arrest and charge of many known gang leaders and murderers. A clear message was sent that no 'person of interest' was safe from police action. Communities began standing up against dons, leading to increased cooperation between police and public, and a greater supply of intelligence. Along with improved investigative activity supported by forensics, this has produced a sharply higher crime clear-up rate. The new crime acts restricting bail for violent offenders have also played a factor. Sometimes, tough love works.

The Golding administration must, at least, be applauded for giving the police a free hand. The days of known criminals being released from custody after an 'important' phone call are no more, and must never be allowed to return.

But the man getting the public's plaudits is Commissioner Owen Ellington. Some claim he is merely in the right place at the right time, and it's true that the decision to recruit Scotland Yard men like Les Green and Justin Felice is now really bearing fruit.

Yet Mr Ellington must be given credit for his unrelenting push to clean up the force, which has seen an unprecedented number of 'bad eggs' being retired, refused re-enlistment, dismissed, and arrested and prosecuted. And there is an unmistakable sense of increased confidence and energy in the force. Can anyone remember such a visible police presence across the entire island?

All people like Paula and me have to say is, 'Keep it up, Commish!'

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