Relatively early in Peter Phillips’ tenure as national security minister, a study on the Jamaica Constabulary Force proposed that at least half of its senior officers be fired or retired to make way for more competent replacements, if the police were to do their jobs properly and be a credible crime-fighting force. The draft document had indicated that up to 80 per cent of the constabulary’s bosses needed to go.
Phillips, although he can be credited with instituting significant reforms to the JCF, did not follow through on that report’s recommendations with the aggression it demanded. He, perhaps, lacked the political support that it would have required to go all the way.
We reflect on those ideas of nearly a decade ago – and the difference it might have made if there had been the will to implement them in earnest – against the backdrop of the interviews now taking place for a new police chief, as well as the country’s latest homicide data.
No easy job
Barring an upset of significant proportions, Owen Ellington, who has been acting in the post for the last two months, will be confirmed as police chief. His most important task will be to tackle Jamaica’shorrendous homicide rate and the general spiral in crime.
That is no easy job. The official numbers are not ready but murders in Jamaica last year were about equivalent to the record of 1,674 of 2005. That translates to a homicide rate of approximately 64 per 100,000 population.
By contrast, New York City, with a population of around four times Jamaica’s, last year recorded an 11 per cent decline in murders and its eight consecutive year with fewer than 600 homicides. Indeed, the city has enjoyed its 19th straight year of a decline in major crimes.
If Ellington or, in the unlikely event, some other police chief, is to place Jamaica on a similar path of success, it will demand far more than appeals to the Almighty and for the support of the community, although we do not question that those will be important.
It will need, too, strong, aggressive leadership of the constabulary and a police force with the moral authority to enforce the law. The JCF, unfortunately, does not, for the majority of Jamaicans, enjoy that authority. It is deemed to be corrupt, behave with impunity and suffer from weak management.
Of course, there have been, in recent years, efforts at tackling corruption in the JCF and to make its members more accountable. But the concentration, up to now, has been primarily on the misbehaviour of junior officers, some of whom, admittedly, are involved in major crimes.
It may be that there is not the provable evidence of dishonesty and underperformance among questionable members of the senior ranks. Nonetheless, many of the issues raised in the report referred to remain relevant today and have to be addressed.
The political leadership has to muster the will to take the hard decisions, including giving the police chief the authority to fire members who fail to perform or who are corrupt. This will also require breaking the old ‘squaddie’ loyalties of the JCF, from which Mr Ellington, as someone who came through the ranks, will have to consciously extricate himself.