The history-making incoming leader of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) has backed the use of states of emergency (SOEs) as a crime-fighting tool but acknowledges public concerns about the increased deployment of the military in civilian security operations and misconduct claims against the army.
Commodore Antonette Wemyss-Gorman, who will be sworn in as chief of defence staff (CDS) today and who ceremonially takes command on Friday, contends that SOEs have proven to be effective in curbing violent crime.
Weymss-Gorman's remarks indicate that she will march in step with outgoing CDS, Lieutenant General Rocky Meade, who has been a fervent advocate of emergency powers in maintaining civilian security in a country that is among the bloodiest peacetime nations in the world.
That suggests that the army, which, along with the constabulary, has pressed the Holness administration to impose SOEs in as many as 19 police divisions, will maintain that philosophy under Weymss-Gorman, the first woman to lead the military.
“The JDF has a long-term perspective of this to change the culture of violence with various different lines of operations, but that is just one tool that is available,” she said in an early-morning Gleaner interview at Up Park Camp before 0700 hours on Wednesday.
Weymss-Gorman, 49, conceded that more boots on the ground might fuel more complaints by the sheer nature of engagement in crime-plagued zones, many of which are labyrinthine informal settlements.
“We want to engage our citizens in normal ways. We don't want to be looking at them at the end of our rifle all the time,” Wemyss-Gorman, who will assume the title of rear admiral, affirmed.
“... Of course, that (complaints) would be of concern to any leader of an organisation. Certainly, I intend to continue to have mitigation training and interventions to ensure that that is minimised. The relationship between the JDF and INDECOM is very strong,” she added.
The commodore's assertion comes against the backdrop of a considerable increase in misconduct complaints against JDF members to the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) – the oversight body for the security forces.
Between 2016 and 2019, there were 22 complaints against the army, but this more than doubled for 2020, when there was the greatest expansion of the extraordinary security measure.
INDECOM said in that one year, there were 46 complaints filed, including 20 counts of discharge of firearms, 12 allegations of assault, five fatalities, four shooting incidents, two claims of destruction of property, one assault and threat, one harassment and threat, and a road collision.
Up to June last year, there were 13 complaints, including nine claims surrounding discharge of firearms.
“Statistics are statistics. More equals more,” Wemyss-Gorman stressed when pressed on whether the accusations could tarnish the JDF's image, noting that the ramped-up deployment in domestic operations would inadvertently result in more grievances.
“For as long as I've been in the JDF, [it] has been employed in support of JCF (Jamaica Constabulary Force) operations, but obviously, I do not want our citizens to have bad interactions with the security forces.”
The incoming army chief said that there has been greater emphasis on human-rights training in a bid to mitigate against unfavourable interactions.
Noting that the relationship between the JDF and INDECOM is “very strong”, Weymss-Gorman said that she intends to maintain that training regimen and other interventions.
SOEs have been the source of contentious debate in the political realm, with the Holness administration citing it as necessary in a country that annually tallies more than 40 murders per 100,000 people.
The Opposition, however, has argued that there are other options, like saturation policing or zones of special operations that do not suspend constitutional rights. The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica says that the implementation of a three-member tribunal and a 90-day cap on detentions make the new iteration of SOEs more palatable.
Weymss-Gorman sought to assure Jamaicans that they would be safe with her at the helm, even under SOEs. She said she would hold every service member accountable for their actions.
“We are very strict in dealing with instances that are proven to be negative,” she said.