Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Editorial: When the police go to Parliament

Published:Thursday | November 12, 2015 | 11:00 AM

As the country's top domestic security officer, the commissioner of police is ultimately accountable to the people he swore to "serve and to protect", the citizens of Jamaica. So, it's quite legitimate for Dr Carl Williams to be invited before the people's representatives, and a committee of Parliament, to report on the state of national security and to give an account of his stewardship.

Except that such matters are not necessarily as straightforward as that, as Commissioner Williams' appearance this week before Parliament's Internal and External Affairs Committee revealed, with credence for calls for crime fighting to be among the society's issues removed from narrow, partisan, point-scoring bickering. It underlined the urgency with which National Security Minister Peter Bunting should elaborate on his expectations of his proposed working group on the rule of law and its members, beyond its chairman, Howard Mitchell.

With more than 1,000 killings a year, and around 45 murders for every 100,000 people, Jamaica has one of the world's worst homicide rates, despite a one-third decline over the past five years. But periodic gains against crime have not been sustainable, as demonstrated by this year's 22 per cent rise in murders after the 16 per cent decline in 2014.

Crime, in the circumstances, often, and perhaps understandably, tends to be a hot-button political issue, especially during periods of elections, for which the country is now in preparation. This provides one context for Mr Williams' appearance before the Opposition-chaired Internal and External Affairs Committee and the debate over whether he should make his presentation in camera or during an open session.

Opposition members wanted the latter, the government side the former. There was a bit of both: Commissioner Williams made his formal presentation in public, and answered members' questions in private. If the aim of the Opposition was to use his presence for political mileage, their effort was thwarted. But what happened may have provided the broad outlines for a model to be employed in future sessions with the police chief.

 

OVERSIGHT OF PERFORMANCE

First, we appreciate the appearance of the police chief before a parliamentary committee not substitute for ministerial accountability for security policy. The police commissioner has responsibility for operational matters, and it is in keeping with good governance that there should be some oversight of his performance, though not specific for his conduct of the job. Whether other institutions may have formal responsibility for the oversight of the constabulary, it can't be inappropriate if, at times, the Parliament, wishing to have a grasp of a critical area of national life, insists on questioning the top law-enforcement officer, who makes no claim to immunity and independence in the context of separation of powers.

But the government side was right to be circumspect about the police chief's presentation being in public, given the possibility of the discussion of matters of national security, issue of tactics or classified operational situations. However, not all hearings need to be in camera, beyond the hearing of the wider citizenry, on whose behalf all the parties act.

We expect these procedures to evolve, with Parliament employing arrangements suitable to the circumstances of the specific hearing. But this will require maturity from all sides.