Editorial | Police Federation has legitimate concerns
It is not often, in recent times, that this newspaper has found itself in support of positions held by the Police Federation. That's because the union for the rank and file of the Jamaica Constabulary Force has mostly busied itself with irrational opposition to INDECOM, the agency that investigates claims of extrajudicial behaviour against police personnel.
This time, though, the federation has a genuine grievance against the Government over the administration's misconduct of industrial relations policy, its egregiously treading upon natural justice, and what may well be a historical illegal suppression of the right of the police to freedom of expression, as guaranteed in Jamaica's Constitution.
In that regard, we support the federation's call by Chairman Raymond Wilson and General Secretary Cecil McCalla for the Government to rescind the recent, almost-surreptitious amendments to the Constabulary Force Act.
If Sergeants Wilson and McCalla didn't have permission, in writing, from the police chief, George Quallo, issuing that statement was, perhaps, a breach of section 70 (2) of the Constabulary Force Act, which circumscribes the ability of civilians and police officers to "publish or communicate" information relating to "the proceedings, deliberations, recommendations" or "any other matter arising out of, or concerning, the duties of the federation".
The same section makes it illegal for a person who is not a member of the constabulary to attend meetings of the Police Federation, without the consent of the police commissioner. It is likely, therefore, that over the years, journalists who covered the annual and special conference of the federation were engaged in an illegality.
Until recently, though, the penalty for such an offence was a fine of up to J$200, or imprisonment of no more than six months. Just recently, the fine was jacked up to J$1 million, and if you fail to pay, a one-year jail term.
Our concern isn't so much the merit of the penalties, but rather how the change occurred. In that respect, this newspaper pleads mea culpa for having been a less-than-vigilant watchdog in this matter, thus allowing it to slip by in Parliament.
Raft of amendments
What the administration did was to attach this, and a raft of other amendments, to the Constabulary Force and Firearms acts, the second schedule to the law allowing establishment of "zones of special operations", where the security forces will have heightened powers. Among the other amendments is one increasing the fine to J$250,000, or jail time of three months, for constables who leave the force before the end of their five-year term of enlistment without giving at least six months' notice.
The Police Federation argues that the sneaky changes effectively criminalise the offences, when this was not previously the case. That is a matter open to debate. What is not, however, is the federation's argument that the amendments, in the absence of consultation, represented "a departure from one of the cardinal principles relating to human resources management".
Further, the Constabulary Force Act was written at a time before transparency was considered an important pillar of good governance, especially in a police force established along paramilitary lines. Such structures are in need of review.
This move to smother the free expression of police personnel should have been considered in the context of the recent Full Court ruling in Brendan Bain's case against the University of the West Indies in which the court upheld Prof Bain's rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.