State can’t use lawlessness to fight crime, says PM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness didn’t appear fazed when he was asked for a response to criticism that his Government’s response to crime is soft.

In fact, he seemed to have been anticipating the question at a breakfast meeting with Jamaica Observer editors and directors, hosted by the newspaper’s chairman, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, last Friday to review the Government’s first year in office.

The question was fired at the prime minister, who was accompanied by five members of his Cabinet, in light of the spike in crime, particularly murders, since the start of this year.

“I think the Government is smart on crime,” he replied. “I think we’ve avoided the perils that being tough on crime carry. Being tough on crime might get you a short term result; you might achieve something in the short-term, but you suffer long term as a result.”

Earlier this month, the Holness Administration announced that it would enforce existing laws in the wake of an escalation in crimes against women and children over the past two months.

“The Government will be using existing laws, which include preventative detention in live and imminent situations of domestic violence, sexual abuse and grooming of minors to remove aggressors from the scene, thereby de-escalating the situation,” Holness said at a Jamaica House news conference.

He insisted that the announcement was not a knee-jerk reaction and said that at an appropriate time he will be putting together all the elements on which the Government has been working to tackle crime.

At that same news conference, Acting Police Commissioner Novelette Grant disclosed that for the February 2016 to February 2017 period 86 people had been held for shooting, 67 for murder, 252 for rape, 280 for robbery, 202 for sexual offences/indecent assault, 237 for sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16, 169 for break-ins, while 54 were held for larceny.

Since then, the preventative detention measure has generated lively debate with equally strong views in support and against.

On February 9 after the ceremonial opening of Parliament, Opposition Spokesman on National Security Peter Bunting said he was disappointed that neither the prime minister’s news briefing nor the policy statement in the governor general’s Throne Speech that day offered anything new or hopeful to calm fear in the country.

According to Bunting, the approach to preventative detention exceeds what is anticipated by the Constitution, and when combined with the Government’s stated zero tolerance approach towards perpetrators of domestic violence, sexual abuse and grooming of minors is fraught with risk of abuse.

But on Friday, Holness insisted that the Government has to use law to fight crime.

“Government can’t use lawlessness to fight crime, and Government must protect the innocent in fighting crime,” he told the Observer. “Collateral damage is not acceptable, and I think what we have done is to put in place the long-term, medium-term and indeed some short-term strategies that will result in a long-term reduction in crime.”

The Government, he said, was tackling crime on all fronts. “We have a plan, we’ve put in place the monitoring institutions, we are working with the implementing agencies, primarily the army and the police, we’re building our intelligence capabilities, we’re securing our borders – making massive investments in that – and we’re looking at the existing laws and giving the policy directives as to how they should be implemented and I think we’re seeing some results. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m confident that we will make Jamaica safe again,” the prime minister said.

His reference to border protection was the Government’s decision to establish new marine bases at Rocky Point in Clarendon, James Bond Beach in St Mary, and Alligator Pond in St Elizabeth.

The bases will be jointly established and operated by the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the Jamaica Customs Agency under a memorandum of understanding signed last December.

In addition, National Security Minister Robert Montague has revealed that the Government is acquiring a new surveillance aircraft as part of a raft of new measures to strengthen the country’s border-protection system.

The crime wave has triggered criticism of Holness for a remark he made in the campaign for the February 2016 General Election. At the time, Holness, who was the Opposition leader, chastised the then People’s National Party (PNP) Government over the high crime rate and stated that if Jamaicans wanted to sleep comfortably with their doors open at night they should vote for his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

On Friday, he was asked if he regretted making that statement.

“Absolutely not!” he responded. “The history of this country has been that the current state of normalised high crime is a feature of the PNP Government. It started in the 1990s and plummeted out of control and we have been at that high level since.

“We had one epiphenomenal event under the Jamaica Labour Party Government which saw a massive reduction in murders which lasted across administrations. It started to rise in the last year of the PNP Administration and that rising wave caught our first year in Administration,” Holness said.

“The Jamaica Labour Party Government is best equipped in terms of its knowledge and understanding, in terms of its policies and programmes, and in terms of its will and commitment to bring crime under control, return peace to Jamaica and address the deep cultural issues which underpin crime and violence in this country,” he added.

“I have no regret for my statement. In fact, it is my vision, my mission, and my commitment and aspiration that this is what we will achieve for Jamaica. I don’t resile from it, and I hold myself accountable for it. And I find that people who try to make an issue of it are ambitionless and have accepted the normal state of crime and violence. I don’t accept it,” the prime minister said.

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