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Editorial: More than uniforms, Mr Williams

Published:Tuesday | May 19, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Police Commissioner, Dr Carl Williams

We note with approval the insistence by the leadership of the police force that its members wear regulation uniforms as part of efforts by the constabulary to rebuild its image and to gain the trust of the communities it serves.

Among Commissioner Williams' immediate bid is to change the too-often image of the Jamaican policeman from special forces fighter preparing for battle, to one of community peace officer. So, he has told his members that they must wear their regulation uniforms - cummerbund, included - in most circumstances. Those units whose regular wear is blue denim must have insignias and rank markings prominently displayed. There should be no more of those Rambo-style carry-alls worn over uniforms. His directive, however, did not mention the open display of high-powered weapons, which is still often the case, despite the ban on this behaviour several years ago by one of his predecessors.

But as the police chief is obviously aware, such symbolic efforts, though important, do not go far enough. And in any event, there are plenty of people around to remind him about similar directives from predecessors that may have been, in some fashion, implemented, but soon forgotten. So, the issue is whether Commissioner Williams has the will to lead the force, beyond cosmetics, to genuine transformation.

The point is that more than 80 per cent of Jamaicans believe the police force is corrupt. Although perception, perhaps, overstates the reality, there is plenty evidence that many of the island's police officers not only abuse their power, but use their uniforms as cover for illicit gains.

Recent trends in police homicides - down by nearly half in 2014 - suggest that being held to account by an independent agency may be helping the constabulary to restrain the most egregious element of its presumed excesses, but nearly 140 killings by peace officers, even for a country with Jamaica's high crime rate, remains a matter of concern.

But in reorienting the constabulary to police with the consent of citizens, Commissioner Williams will also need broad policy support from the Government on the matter of community security and how it is delivered, which includes the tools the force is given to do the job.


Mimicking US policy?


In this respect, it is a significant coincidence that Mr Williams' dress code order came as President Barack Obama announced restrictions on the use of federal government money to finance military-style equipment for local police forces.

Mr Obama's action is in the wake of tensions between the police and citizens in several cities after their killing of black suspects and the police's employment of such equipment to suppress protests. But implicit in Mr Obama's policy move is the argument that paramilitary-style policing creates a harsh divide and diminishes trust between the constabulary and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.

In other words, when police don camouflage uniforms, ride in armoured trucks or variations thereof, and tote high-powered weapons, people are more likely to perceive of them as occupiers rather than partners. Thus, criminals, instead of being isolated, find cover in the community's collective resentment. That, roughly, has long been Jamaica's circumstance. It's a trend that Carl Williams has to reverse if he is to be a successful police chief.