Social Commentary

Jamaica: A Crime Story

In print media this week and last week there was a flurry of articles and letters to editors responding to the 19% increase in crime over last year; that is an average of seven killings per day since June. The crime rate was this high only during the 2010 West Kingston operation. If the news wasn’t leading with the the rains it was leading with the murders.

On Thursday June 15 The Gleaner’s Letter of the Day went to a writer who gave a 360 perspective on crime. The article stated three main social institutions that our culture has eroded: the community, the police and the justice system. A long time ago I read a psychological test written by Sharon Leach for The Sunday Observer’s Bookends, and upon remembering this along with the Letter of the Day, I decided to make my own test:

A young man who is in his final year at university leaves his friend’s house at night and heads to a bus stop no more than two minutes away to wait for a taxi that he’d called. On his way there he is robbed at gunpoint for his valuables: his cellphone and his laptop. The robber is a known member of a gang in the community and so no one dares to engage him. The young man pleads with the robber stating that he has important information on his cellphone and laptop but the robber insists that if he cooperates he will not be harmed. A struggle ensues and the young man is shot and injured. Persons in the community who hear the cries for help offer assistance to the young man who is eventually taken to the hospital in critical condition. A report is filed at the police station by the young man’s mother and paperwork is submitted by the officer on duty which is then stacked with a pile of others in the station detective’s office. Two weeks goes by, the mother visits the police station everyday and is told that the superintendent now has the case. Another week goes by, the thief strikes again and is arrested. In the three months that the thief awaits his court date, the young man dies at the hospital. The criminal then goes to trial and is acquitted because there were no witnesses who would testify. The thief is given bail and subsequently freed.

My question is: who is to be blamed for the student’s death and in what order? The community, the student, the police, the friend or the justice system?

Some people would blame the friend. It is obvious that crime is not new to his community so wouldn’t it be wise to be mindful of the study time if his friend is coming over? Even so, maybe the thief would be less inclined to attack a stranger if he was walking with a community member. Notice that the student did not for a minute consider staying the night with his friend and leaving in the morning, perhaps because he was never suppose to be at his friend’s home in the first place. Clearly this friend was not one willing to face repercussions from his/her parents for his schoolmate.

But we can also look at the community. A stranger is being robbed and everyone passing turns a blind eye. There isn’t the idea that if they form a herd to protect this young man the lone thief will flee. Obviously no one wants to put their life in danger where they could be tracked down and harassed either by the gang members or by the police as a witness to this crime. The cowardly community only offers assistance after the young man has been shot and after the thief has fled.

We can also look at the gunman himself. Why couldn’t he leave the young student alone, he is obviously not well off, what does he have to offer? And why steal a student’s laptop? It is a tool that holds the key to his university degree and to his future; and to make it worse he not only steals the young man’s valuables but to ensure that he is not chased, he shoots the victim who is unarmed.

Then there is the young man himself. Why leave your friend’s home when it is well known that the streets are not safe at night? And why fight for material things when your life is in danger? Another phone can be bought, notes and projects can be replaced from friends and from memory and if not, summer school can be attended if he happens to fail at school because of this setback. He however cannot do any of these things if he is dead.

Then there are those who will say the justice system is the first to blame. The defense obviously didn’t try hard enough to get other evidence, for example, forensic evidence (which in all fairness is an understaffed and overworked sub-sector in Jamaica), in the court but instead chose to rely completely on witness statements which the witnesses themselves could not even back up in court. And why was there this long delay, three months, to deal with a petty crime? The delay was so long that the young man not only lost his life but also received no justice because he could not attend his own trial.

Finally, of course there are the police officers. There was no sense of urgency to solve the crime. What if the criminal did not strike again? I am sure they would not have made an arrest otherwise. But more importantly, It is obvious that the police-community relationship is very poor and that the community lacks confidence in the force. How else could the gang have such as strong hold over the residents? Even though the creation of the ‘informer culture’ in Jamaica basically went like this, it should be known that police officers are really only as goods as their informants.

In the end I guess this is not so much a psychological test but a cautionary tale: there are always different sides to a story, there are always different perspectives, but for the victim ignorance is never an excuse, you are always first responsible for your welfare. It really does take a village to raise a child and for 2017, based on the crime statistics, that child now more than ever, is Jamaica. — Bless.

[cover art by: Simon Bull