Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Editorial | They aren't Mr Montague's police

Published:Tuesday | May 30, 2017 | 5:16 AM

We appreciate that Robert Montague would wish not only to lift the morale of the constabulary, but personally identify with its members. He, after all, is the minister of national security and, therefore, has portfolio responsibility for the police force, whose members have a difficult and often dangerous job.

Indeed, on Sunday, Mr Montague was among mourners at the funeral of Leighton Hanson, a police constable who was shot dead with his own service pistol last month after being disarmed by a suspect during what was expected to have been a routine arrest.

But even as we sympathise with Mr Montague's intention and share his empathy for the constabulary, we warn the minister of the dangers of conflating basic sentiment and effective policy and the risk of loose language being misinterpreted as specific directive. The minister was emotive in his remarks at Constable Hanson's funeral.

We have three specific concerns in this regard. The first is in respect of Mr Montague's use of the possessive pronoun in relation to members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). He referred to them as "my police".

We give Mr Montague the benefit of the doubt that the intent was a display of empathy and closeness to police personnel who risk their lives in the protection of Jamaica's citizens. But a deeper, and not-so-subliminal, message is on his ownership, as the security minister, of the police force, the person to whom the JCF, as an institution, and its individual members, owe allegiance.

If this was a strategy consciously devised by Mr Montague, he wouldn't be the first national security minister to make this claim on the JCF although not so openly declared in recent times. It used to be the norm for police personnel to ingratiate themselves with the portfolio minister and for political loyalty to be rewarded with privilege. It was an approach to governance that contributed to the corruption of the police force.

The 1990s change to the law to restrict the minister's role to that of policy and to give the police chief clear responsibility for operations was, in part, to reverse this ministerial grab for ownership and control of the JCF. But the more profound intent of that change was twofold: to ensure that ownership of the police rested with whom the police really belong - the people they are sworn to serve and protect - and to create the basis for the reprofessionalisation of the force.

NO COMPROMISE

The JCF still has a long way to go to achieve those goals, but their effort must not be compromised or undermined by ministerial overreach, unintended or not.

Second, the JCF has a clear use-of-force policy, including the circumstances under which they should discharge their firearms. We are aware that that policy is under regular review to determine how it can be refined by less use of deadly force without endangering the lives of police personnel. That policy and how the police should react in specific circumstances are not matters about which we expect the minister to speak glibly, which is what we believe he did on Sunday, with his advice to criminals to aim guns at the police and his warning that Jamaica has received a shooting simulator from the United States to train "our police to shoot straight and to shoot them".

We are concerned, too, about Mr Montague's upbraiding of people who criticise the police as though drawing attention to weaknesses and frailties is an attempt merely to denigrate, rather than to encourage improvement.

Mr Montague created great sound bites without advancing serious discourse.