Principle of Legitimacy and Crime Fighting in Jamaica


Kelly McIntosh, Contributor
We have been doing the same thing as it relates to ‘the fight against crime’ and expecting a different result for a few decades now. The latest iteration, the latest variation on the same tired theme, is a rehash of a unit formed in 2012 to ‘fight crime’.
The new MOCA is now a merger of the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s Anti-Corruption Branch and the former Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Task Force. Yawn. We’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. Successive administrations have resorted to the time-worn tactic of creating/renaming a ‘special task force’ or creating/renaming a new ‘squad’ when their backs are against the wall for their abject failure to create a safe environment for the citizens of Jamaica.
Let’s go back just a little, shall we. We have had Echo Squad (1976), Ranger Squad (1980), Eradication Squad (1980), Area Four Task Force (1986), Operation Ardent (1992), ACID, shortly renamed SACTF (1993), Operation Justice (1995), Operation Dovetail (1997), Organised Crime Unit (1998), Operation Intrepid (1999), Crime Management Unit (2000), Organised Crime Investigation Division (2003), Operation Kingfish (2004) and Operation Resilience (2013).
At the beginning of 2014, National Security Minister Peter Bunting announced his plans for adding resources to this ‘fight against crime’: more boots on the ground, more vehicles, and new legislation to ‘get the bad guys’. I’m stifling yet another yawn. But try as I might, I cannot continue to merely exist, seeking to protect my psyche from the constant bombardment of warmed-up dishes of yesterday and grand announcements.
Has it not occurred to those tasked with the responsibility of leading us, of protecting us, of serving us that they have failed? That this ‘strategy’ of announcements and task forces and squads has yielded nothing? Have they not stopped to consider that perhaps their philosophical framework needs to be challenged at the very least and most likely discarded?
How successful has this approach of ‘getting tough on crime’ by way of a bigger, better squad/task force been? Look at the murder statistics! In spite of more than one dozen task forces/squads since the 1970s, this little island at the end of 2013 was declared in a UNODC report as having the sixth highest homicide rate in the world.
But let’s go back again, shall we, to track our progress on the road to this dubious honour: 1972: 152 murders, 1980: 899 murders, 1990: 543 murders, 2000: 887 murders, 2010: 1,428 murders, 2013: 1,200 murders. The 2013 murders represented a nine per cent increase over 2012 murders. Yes, the minister has been quick to point out that at the end of 2013, shooting was down by one per cent, rape was down by 16 per cent, and aggravated assault by 14 per cent. Only that persistent, niggling little metric, murders, was up.
Principle of legitimacy
So I return to the need for a new philosophical framework. In his most recent book (David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants), Malcolm Gladwell outlines the ‘principle of legitimacy’ and how it applies to effectively dealing with crime and insurgency. He speaks about the three-decade-long unrest in Northern Ireland, despite more and more force being added to quell the situation there. He speaks of the tome Rebellion and Authority by Leites and Wolf (1970), which has served as the template for many governments and administrations, essentially recommending the addition of resources and coming down hard and with evident power and authority against those who dare to flout the so called rule of law. Leites and Wolf’s philosophy served as the template for the terms of engagement of the USA in Vietnam. We know how that worked for them.
The principle of legitimacy may seem counterintuitive at first glance, as its focus is not ‘how can I clamp down’ in the face of rebellion and antisocial activity. Gladwell states that when people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters first and foremost how they behave. Jamaica has been seeking to fight crime per the tenets of Leites and Wolf: more resources, more force, and more show of force.
It simply has not worked. It makes sense, therefore, to consider changing the philosophy that guides strategy. This theoretical framework, the principle of legitimacy, holds that desired behaviours will result when three conditions are met. First, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice. Second, the law has to be predictable; consequences must be the same today, yesterday and forever despite who the lawbreaker is. And last, authority has to be fair – one group cannot be treated differently from another.
Think about your own effort as a parent to instill order in the home: chaos will reign if you punish the same infraction one way today, and ignore it tomorrow. Chaos will reign if you punish Child 1 but turn a blind eye to Child 2 who disobeys. And chaos will certainly reign if the children feel as if they don’t have a voice. The minute you turn your back, they will seek to give vent to any and every desire they have, like watching a forbidden show, or sneaking candy when they know they’re not to, or hiding to go online in spite of your instructions to the contrary.
Brooklyn example
Gladwell goes on to illustrate how using the principle of legitimacy to influence policing strategy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, resulted in a sustained fall in robberies in that town between 2003 and 2006. The police there recognised that they were seen as the enemy and deliberately set out to demonstrate in tangible ways that they were interested in the community (youth programmes, inserting themselves in family life, consistently and fairly applying sanctions) and not merely interested in simply laying down the law. Gladwell summed it up nicely: When the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy, it doesn’t produce obedience. It produces the opposite: backlash.
What have we to lose in considering this philosophical framework in the ‘fight against crime’? Do the Government and police force exhibit legitimacy? Does every Jamaican feel as if they have a voice? Scenes of poor, black people holding placards and blocking roads demanding justice keep looping in my mind – different district, always the same demographic, same plea.
Is the law predictable? Does every spliff smoker fear being arrested and jailed and possibly dying at the end of the day? It seems to me that laws are sometimes used as a tool of selective oppression, an instrument used to capture and condemn subjectively per the whim/agenda of the law enforcers. Are our authorities seen to be fair? Whether or not so-called police death squads really exist, it is a matter of record that extrajudicial killings in Jamaica are alarmingly high. In 2012, 219 Jamaicans were killed by the police, nine more than the 210 killed by the police in 2011. And in 2013, 245 Jamaicans were killed by police.
Police abuse
Think about reported beatings and verbal abuse at the hands of the police, and even death of persons in police custody. Hark back to the case of Agana Barrett in 1992 who died of suffocation in the Constant Spring lock-up after being crammed into a small cell with 16 other men. It took the State 11 years to award his mother $3.5m.
Fast-forward to 2014 where Mario Deane was arrested and taken into custody for possession of a ganja spliff. He died days later as a result of the beating he experienced while in the custody of the police. It took six days after Mario’s death for the personnel on duty to be interdicted. Can our authorities really be deemed legitimate?
I implore our Government and our police force to challenge their current assumptions about what it will take to fight crime in light of past actions and past results and this very compelling principle of legitimacy put forward by Gladwell. For if Mr Gladwell is indeed correct, continuing along the present trajectory of simply a greater show of force in the absence of an engaged citizenry, and fair and predictable law enforcement, will result in only one certain outcome.
Kelly McIntosh is operations manager of a major food-export company. Email feedback to and Follow Kelly’s blog at