Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) is concerned about the Jamaican government’s continued use of the state of public emergencies (SoPE) as a sustainable crime-fighting strategy. While JFJ is equally concerned about the pervasive crime and violence and the spate of killings of members of the citizenry, fear, however, cannot be a driver for public policy. In our experience, knee-jerk reactions to tackle crime and violence often result in the infringement of the human rights of the most vulnerable. The organisation therefore supports and calls for sustained legitimate crime-fighting strategies that will keep all Jamaicans safe – strategies that will both prevent the commission of crime and those that will see perpetrators brought to justice.
While the Constitution contemplates States of Emergency, it is clear that these are not intended for unlimited Executive power for sustained periods, creating a possible de facto military state. Simply put, States of Public Emergency cannot be a routine crime fighting strategy.
For decades, the Jamaican society has been trying to deal with the “crime monster”. Across successive administrations, the GOJ has committed to draconian methods that have not worked, do not work, and cannot work. It has instituted methods like the Gun Court and the Suppression of Crimes Act (1974); it has created endless “squads” with myriads of “crime fighters”.
What successive administrations have failed to do is to wholesomely implement the recommendations in the various reports, such as the 1994 Wolfe report, to tackle crime at its root, including, by targeting the highly connected or the powerful behind these criminal networks. This, JFJ contends, is among the reasons criminals continue to thrive, because those in authority have not had the desire or the will to take the necessary steps to deal with the corrupt linkages and the tentacles of organised crime which reach to the highest levels of all spheres of the society.
‘Emergencies’ cannot Breach Rights and Expand Constitutional Power of the Executive
In 2020, in the case of Everton Douglas et al vs The Minister of National Security et al filed on behalf of citizens detained under similar SoPE by Attorneys-at-Law including from Jamaicans for Justice, the Supreme Court judge found the objectors’ detention under the SoPE to be unlawful, unconstitutional and without justification. Key outcomes of this ruling noted that the situation under which the detention was made did not qualify as an emergency or satisfy the situation in Sections 20(2) & (5) of the Constitution and the use of detention order for criminal offences breach the separation of power doctrine.
JFJ believes that the Prime Minister’s decision to place seven police divisions across some five parishes under the SoPE is alarming given the Supreme Court’s decision in Douglas. Unless overturned by the Court of Appeal or a higher court, the Supreme Court judgment is still binding notwithstanding an appeal brought by the government. The PM’s utterance around objections to SoPE being merely an academic exercise must be of grave concern to all Jamaicans. This statement betrays a fundamental disregard for our Constitution and the rule of law.
Emergency powers, as those utilised under the SoPE, usually sees security forces arresting and detaining Jamaicans, mostly from poor and marginalized communities, without reasonable grounds or credible evidence. The Commissioner of Police’s statement that the SoPE will allow for time to remove suspected persons out of the communities, detain them and then investigate to build cases goes against intelligence-based, proactive policing.
In 2020, JFJ reviewed over 100 cases of reported human rights violations by persons detained under the State of Emergency Power Act from the period April 2019 to August 2020. Majority of the persons indicated that they feared for their lives, others disclosing reports of police brutality, physical and psychological abuse. Some individuals, especially those with prior convictions, no matter how minor, expressed that they felt like targets under the SoPE. In reviewing the grounds for detention by security forces, JFJ found that essentially persons were detained by security forces for ‘processing’. The data reveals a rather alarming number of persons reporting to be victims of abuse from the members of security forces as a result of personal vendettas or disputes.
In addition to constitutional failure around protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to due process and a fair hearing were undermined. The very construct of the Review Tribunal which operates under the discretion of the national security minister, with some recommendations from the police, runs contrary to the separation of powers demanded by the Constitution. This is a critical part of our democracy that prevents abuse of state power and is part of what distinguishes democracies from police states.
The Attorney General’s assurance that the Review Tribunal will also do a periodic review of those detained in seven divisions therefore offers no real assurance given the concerns about the Tribunals. Mrs. Malahoo-Forte also stated that there will no longer be detentions of more than a year without charge for those detained. This is still troubling for JFJ given the stark anomaly with the provisions of the Bail Act which only allows for detention for up twenty – four (24) hours without charge.
A Call for Comprehensive Crime Plan anchored in Respect for Human Rights
For decades the society has been trying to deal with this monster. We have been committed to methods that have not worked, do not work, and cannot work. We have instituted methods like the Gun Court and the Suppression of Crimes Act; we have created endless “squads” and hailed myriads of “crime fighters”; we have had a year in which police killings exceeded other homicides; we have turned a blind eye to or encouraged or sanctioned criminal activity because it was “our” criminals, over whom we thought we had control, whether the party affiliated criminals or the criminals in the security forces. What we have not done is to implement the recommendations in the reports that might have troubled the highly connected or the powerful that are the ‘brains and resources’ that reside within the political parties and their affiliated gangs, within the upper echelons of the security forces and within the private sector. Is this why we have never really gone after them or been able to implement measures which would have destroyed that link in the crime chain?
JFJ has always maintained that controlling Jamaica’s violent crime, particularly murders, requires a comprehensive approach which does not infringe on the rights of the citizenry. This would include not only reasonable, justifiable legislation but also social and civil interventions in troubled communities; sustained, resourced and focused crime-prevention strategies; modernization of the police force to better facilitate sensible community-based and intelligence-driven policing, and significant improvement in the administration of justice. JFJ also once again strongly calls for the implementation of the recommendations in the myriad crime-fighting reports.
We call upon the GOJ to develop a comprehensive, effective and sustainable crime-fighting plan that will result in inroads to tackle crime. We call up the government to uphold the rule of law and safeguard the rights of all Jamaicans as it pursues important crime-fighting initiatives. We maintain that in a democracy, it is possible to address crime without breaching citizens’ fundamental rights. We reiterate that the mandate of the security forces in general and plain terms is to serve and protect the citizenry. The Jamaica Constabulary Force, after all, is and ought to be the society’s biggest human rights organisation.