Newsmaker… Week: Spn Town crime, court ruling lead to big SOE debate | Loop Jamaica

The content originally appeared on: Jamaica News | Loop News

This week’s featured development as Newsmaker of the Week just ended is the deadly violence gripping the old capital of Spanish Town in St Catherine, which Prime Minister Andrew Holness has described as a “national emergency”.

The deadly violence gripping the town and other murder incidents across St Catherine, reportedly mainly caused by active conflicts between 12 gangs operating in the parish, resulted in the Government declaring a state of emergency (SOE) for the entire parish.

“The Government of Jamaica has to act. We cannot sit by and see innocent Jamaicans going about their business, on their way to work, and from the market, and having to be scurrying for their lives,” Holness said at a press conference on Friday to declare the SOE.

“The Government has to act. That is the Government’s responsibility. We, of course, must act within the boundaries of our laws and constitution,” he added.

But a Supreme Court ruling hours after the declaration of the SOE for St Catherine indicated that some of the emergency powers regulations under a 2018 SOE in St James, were unconstitutional.

This has resulted in many legal and political commentators questioning whether the current regulations for the SOE in St Catherine are in line with the constitution and Charter of Fundamental Rights.

However, Attorney General, Derrick McKoy, in a statement late Friday, said “Even before the ruling, the Government had amended the regulations governing States of Public Emergency after 2018.

“These amendments were to satisfy concerns raised by the litigants in the courts regarding the process engaged in the detention of suspects,” the attorney general stated.

Before all of that, however, Holness’ announcement of a SOE in St Catherine was in response to Tuesday’s gun attack that sent people scampering in the busy Spanish Town market district, resulting in two persons being killed and the imposition of a 48-hour curfew in some communities to get a handle on the apparently spiralling serious crime rate in the town.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness

Overall, it was a bloody day in or near Spanish Town on Tuesday, with several other killings and shooting incidents.

Specifically, the nation woke up on Tuesday morning to news that 26-year-old Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) member, Kemar Dennis, was shot and killed at his house in Central Village, just outside Spanish Town, at about 3am.

Then, in McCook’s Pen, also just outside Spanish Town, the police found the bodies of two unidentified men lying along a dirt track. They were both found with gunshot wounds sometime after 6am.

By 3pm Tuesday, residents, shoppers and vendors were sent scurrying, while businesses closed their doors as gunmen alighted from their vehicles in the market district in Spanish Town, and killed two men.

One of the deceased men in that incident was identified as a reputed gangster called ‘Mackerel’, who is said to have been associated with the One Order gang.

Also on that day, another reputed gangster by the name of ‘Crocs’ was killed by the police during an armed confrontation in the French Street area of Spanish Town.

Amidst it all, there was a fire at the administrative building of the St Catherine Parish Court in the heart of Spanish Town, but the damage was mostly confined to the roof of the building.

The police are probing whether the fire at the courthouse’s administrative building was related to the gang warfare in Spanish Town.

Following the day’s deadly conflicts, the police responded by issuing a 48-hour curfew Tuesday night, to contain the vicious gangsters engaged in what the police termed as “intra-gang conflicts” within the One Order gang.

That gang, which historically has feuds with the Clansman gang, is reportedly headquartered in the Tawes Pen community in Spanish Town, where three Sundays ago, a quadruple killing occurred.

In responding to the theory being put forward by the police, Member of Parliament (MP) for Central St Catherine, Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, said she has not received any reports from communities within the constituency to suggest that the One Order gang was behind the latest gun murders in Spanish Town.

While speaking during a tour on Wednesday with several police and Government officials, Grange reiterated that she was not involved in any gang.

Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange

“So, I can’t tell you if it’s a breakaway faction from a gang… Once there are incidents that are connected to communities that are in strong support of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), then the elements that are involved are labelled ‘One Order’,” she told reporters.

“But, what I can tell you, I haven’t heard the name One Order called in the communities around for a long time. They have been focused on how they can improve their lives,” she claimed.

Instead, Grange purported that the killings and other related conflicts originated from nearby communities, and has since spilled over into her constituency.

Aside from the old capital, the police on Wednesday found the bodies of two men wrapped in tarpaulin in the trunk of a white Toyota Probox motorcar at about 1pm in a section of Portmore, St Catherine.

The mouths of the men were gagged, and there were bullet wounds to their foreheads.

They were identified as 27-year-old Andre Dixon, a businessman of McVikers Lane, Spanish Town, and 48-year-old Ricardo Gordon of Madrid Avenue, Homestead, also in Spanish Town.

Cops said the killings of both men may have been linked to the ongoing gang feud in Spanish Town, but investigations were ongoing.

Then on Wednesday night, amid the curfew in Spanish Town and its environs, gunmen struck in Homestead, killing 44-year-old Nekisha Pottinger, who the police claimed was the mother of a gangster. Her killing was said to have been a reprisal for the killing of another woman in April of this year.

Another woman and her child were also shot and injured, allegedly by the same gunmen who attacked Pottinger.

In response the mayhem and violence in Spanish Town, the prime minister on Wednesday said the situation in the old capital “has the potential, if it is not dealt with strongly and firmly and immediately, to claim many more lives.

“The level of organised criminal activities there is a national emergency. I do not have the luxury to be dithering on these matters anymore. We have to act, and we have to act to protect the innocent, law-abiding citizens,” he said in hinting at the SOE to come.

Up to November last year, the Government had used the SOE as a crime-fighting tool, but Opposition senators voted against extending a motion to extend the measure.

Holness returned to the ‘touchy’ subject of the resistance to the Government’s crime response at a meeting hours after gunmen shot up Spanish Town.

He used the opportunity to chastise individuals who do not express concern for the rights of those most affected by crime.

“It is never a debate about the rights of the victims — those people who suffer, those people who are killed, those people who are injured in accidents,” he lamented.

“It is never a debate about those who have lost loved ones. What about their rights too?… Justice must be blind, but it cannot be deaf! It has to hear the cries of the victims, the people who are suffering,” Holness contended.

By Friday morning, the prime minister made good on his promise to act, and announced that the governor-general had consented to the declaration of the St Catherine SOE.

And Holness again defended his Government’s action by asserting that the state has to use exceptional powers to deal with the level of organised crime across the country, which is creating a threat to democracy.

“No one can say that Prime Minister Andrew Holness did not act and did what was necessary to protect innocent lives,” declared Holness at a press conference on Friday morning.

A security checkpoint amid the ongoing state of emergency in St Catherine.

“I speak for the innocent citizens of our country. If others want to speak for the people who are creating crime or creating opportunity of blanket and protection for them to hide behind, then it is their business,” he told critics of the use of the SOEs.

Asked whether the Government would seek constitutional adjustments to amend the legislation requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate to extend a state of emergency (SOE) beyond the 14-day period, Holness said adjustments needed to be made to the island’s constitution.

“The Government recognises that the present legal and constitutional framework, as it is now, needs clarification, (and) needs, in some instances, redefinition, and therefore, we always welcome the court’s clarification, because it makes it easier for us to define policy,” he stated.

While awaiting any clarification on the court from the SOE, Holness said the Government also recognises that “the threat that exists to democracy that we have now is quite different from when the constitution was conceived.”

Police Commissioner, Major General Antony Anderson, highlighted some of the threats to law and order taking place in St Catherine, caused by the high level of violent crime being experienced in the parish within the past two months.

He pointed to the level of violent conflicts there as having risen to the scale where the parents of gangsters have been killed in reprisals and counter-reprisals.

“These violent conflicts have reached the stage where family members, including the parents of gangsters, have been killed in reprisals and counter-reprisals.

Major General Antony Anderson

“When this happens, it creates the conditions for gangsters to take greater risks to take revenge with little or no consideration for collateral damage, whether injury to persons or damage to property,” he indicated.

According to Anderson, this situation was played out on Tuesday in the Spanish Town market district, where two men were shot dead and several other persons were injured.

He noted that St Catherine has 12 active gangs in conflicts, a situation which has resulted in murders and shootings at any given time.

“Since the beginning of 22 in St Catherine, we have arrested 82 persons for illegal possession of firearm or ammunition, and seized 59 illegal guns, an increase of 29 per cent compared to last year.

“We have also continued to prosecute gangs and gang members, and are leading several active community engagement programmes across the parish,” Anderson further stated.

Still, despite these efforts, he said that as of June 15, the St Catherine North Police Division recorded 70 murders and 51 shootings, representing a 52 per cent and 76 per cent increase, respectively, when compared to the similar period in 2021.

Meanwhile, in the St Catherine South Division, 58 murders were recorded over the period, as was the case last year, said Anderson.

A total of 53 shootings were recorded, compared to 43 last year, representing an increase of 23 per cent.

“Six weeks ago, the St Catherine South Division was experiencing a reduction in murders of 48 per cent. The recent conflicts in the St Catherine North Division has extended themselves into the southern section of the parish, to include Portmore and Old Harbour,” informed Anderson.

For these reasons, the commissioner contended that the SOE “has been very effective in quickly reducing violent crime, and an SOE at this time will allow us the opportunity to optimise the available resources, in particular the support from the JDF (Jamaica Defence Force).”

It was a point also echoed by Minister of National Security, Dr Horace Chang, who said the necessary laws to remove violence producers from the parish of St Catherine is embedded within the SOE legislation.

He assured the citizens, and the nation at large, that the hoodlums from the 12 gangs operating in the parish would be apprehended.

“There are several large gangs across St Catherine, particularly northern St Catherine, and two big organised units that have, in fact, have created persistent criminal activities in the area,” he said.

Dr Horace Chang

“The violence producers in this area need to be removed immediately to restore order and restore public safety.

“The security forces will find the violence producers. We know where they are and we will apprehended them and restore calm and public order,” said Chang, who is the Deputy Prime Minister.

But there were fears and questions on whether the Government’s SOE in St Catherine would be derailed due to a ruling from the Supreme Court.

However, the panel of judges comprising Justice Chester Stamp, Justice Ann-Marie Nembhard and Justice Tara Carr, did not rule that the use of the SOE was unconstitutional, but rather, some Emergency Powers Regulations governing the SOE.

The ruling surrounded a challenge that was brought by St James taxi operator, Roshaine Clarke, who was detained for more than 200 days under the SOE that was imposed in St James in 2018.

In his lawsuit, Clarke asserted that his right to liberty, to be informed at the time of his detention of the reason for his arrest, and to be brought before a court as soon as is reasonably practicable, were breached.

His application was upheld by the court, and he was awarded a total amount of $17,862,000, inclusive of compensatory, vindicatory and aggravated damages.

“In disposing of the case, the court held and declared the Emergency Powers Regulations Sections 22 and 32… in respect to the fundamental rights of freedom of movement, Regulations 30, 33 and 38, in respect to the fundamental right to freedom and liberty, breached the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Constitution,” read Justice Champ of the summary of the judgment via a virtual hearing.

In responding to the judgment late Friday, Attorney General Derrick McKoy noted that the regulations under the SOE were amended well before the court ruling.

“These amendments are currently operating in the regulations governing States of Public Emergency,” he said in a release.

McKoy said he is now in “the process of a detailed review of the ruling, to ensure that the current Regulations are consistent with the court’s ruling.

“The Government of Jamaica respects the court’s ruling and commits to ensuring the judgment is thoroughly followed,” McKoy stated, adding that, “The Government is totally committed to fully applying the rule of law as laid down in the Constitution.”

Still, the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) is maintaining that the way the Government has been using SOEs since 2018 has violated the constitution, and this has been confirmed by the judgment of the Constitutional Court of the Supreme Court

The party, in a release, also opined that the $17.8 million in damages awarded to Clarke could open the floodgates for other young persons so detained for extensive periods without charge, to become claimants in similar cases.

As the on-and-off debate continues regarding the SOEs, it appears that, despite the imposition of the security measure, Spanish Town and other areas will take some time to return to its glory days.

In providing an update on the situation in Spanish Town on Friday afternoon, President of the St Catherine Chamber of Commerce, Dennis Robotham, said businesses reopened and vendors came out earlier in the day.

“… But as it gets closer to two and three o’clock (in the afternoon), everybody start closing down… Even today (Friday), which is surprising to me, because I was wondering why everyone was closing,” he said on a radio interview.

He said that by 5pm, the town was like a ghost town.

“I think is the trauma that happened the other day is still in the system (of persons),” Robotham theorised, alluding to Tuesday’s shooting spree in the market district.

While speaking on the same radio programme, MP for Eastern St Catherine, Denise Daley, agreed that the entire Spanish Town and wider areas were still tense, despite the imposition of the SOE in the wider parish, as businesses closed and persons were getting home early.

JLP MP for South Central St Catherine, Dr Andrew Wheatley, while being personally unable to assess the situation in his constituency since the imposition of the SOE, said up to Thursday night, a level of “anxiety among the elderly and women” remained.

“Based on the reports I have been getting… from the constituency, is that they are very pleased to see this state of emergency being implemented, and, in fact, the increased police presence that we have been seeing leading up to the state of emergency gave them some level of comfort,” he stated.

Dr Andrew Wheatley

“But I am sure a lot of persons are still traumatised and wondering what will happen after the expiration of the state of emergency,” said Wheatley.

On social media, there were a wide variety of reactions to the upsurge of violence in Spanish Town and the subsequent imposition of the SOE.

For some, the CCTV footage of the persons fleeing the Spanish Town market district on Tuesday was reminiscent of former years when crime was rampant in the old capital.

“Seeing this video me a tell you mek me remember days gone by when me use to run from gun shots when me a leave Spanish Town High. Full time these politicians and gun bwoy leggo Spanish Town,” wrote Ashanti Hall on Facebook.

In response to the declaration of the SOE in St Catherine to address the rise in crime, especially in Spanish Town, social media user, Clifton Whittaker, said: “The PM has the right to protect all Jamaican citizens from these worthless criminals, and let the courts do their job and don’t have any problems with 14 days SOE.”

Some social media users were not in agreement with that sentiment.

Tabby Robinson opined that, “The criminal who are hardcore criminals dun leave Spanish Town long time and gone some rural areas gone chill out.

“The Government needs a new strategy now man. Every year is the same SOE in and out. SOE not gonna catch the big, uptown man a pump money in crime, just the ghetto criminals who don’t have the right links,” he commented.

On Twitter, Spanish Town was trending for most of the week, but not for good reasons.

“From me a go Spanish Town Primary this same situation exists. So I don’t know how more of the same ‘tough policing’ is going to help when the toughest policeman already tried,” tweeted @llemytheecon.

Shared @TheMorrisonView: “Spanish Town being under the control of two gangs for well over two decades that have now splintered into many smaller fractions wreaking havoc in people’s lives is a testament to the failure of the JCF and different Gov’ts to deal with crime.”