Mark Ricketts | It’s a disgrace how we treat the police (Part 1)
This is Part 1 of a five-part series.
Next month, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) will be celebrating 150 years since its formation. Such longevity usually suggests strength, acceptability, and success.
For nearly one-third of the JCF's 150 years, 55 years to be exact, Jamaica has been an independent nation.
Since Independence, homicides have skyrocketed, reaching, at their worst, a murder rate of 60 per 100,000. The bloodshed has prompted leading University of the West Indies (UWI) anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle to say, "We are killing ourselves in an undeclared civil war." Trying to put a lid on things, the Government last week introduced in Denham Town the second zone of special operations (ZOSO).
How could a small country go from being one of the best in the world on a per-capita basis as far as murders, to being one of the worst in just over half a century? Where did we go wrong?
A seemingly ready-made answer is that it must be the fault of the JCF, which is charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace, and the peace surely has not been kept.
As late as the 1960s, the policeman, the postmistress, the teacher, the doctor, the pastor, the lawyer were seen as role models in communities all across Jamaica. Now the police are berated and vilified.
That's understandable, as they function in a time warp where the physical conditions of stations and the accompanying technology bear no relevance to current needs and to the changing pattern and structure of crime. An undermanned police force with inadequate staff in the investigative unit and on our roads; outdated laws; the absence of ordered liberty and serious enforcement of our laws mean that we are essentially giving the police basket to carry water. Then we chastise them.
Whatever major reforms are instituted arising from recommendations in, say, the 1993 Wolfe Report (The Report of the National Task Force on Crime), they are still condemned, as if nothing has been done.
Let's look at a few examples.
The begging and windshield wiping at stop lights have become unbearable. Many drivers confess to being so terrified that they find themselves running the light or taking more circuitous routes just to avoid the pestering and harassment. The pleading for money from wipers is relentless. Despite the driver yelling a thousand times, "No! No!" the wiper insists as he has a "yute (youth) to feed".
The wiper's sleight of hand and cat-and-mouse game of splashing the windshield before the driver sees is unnerving, and it becomes even worse when the wiper sneaks to the back of the car, undetected, and begins cleaning the rear glass, leaving the driver powerless. Unless, of course, overcome by anger and frustration, the driver ends up in a fistfight with the wiper, like what happened to a well-known doctor who does not have a belligerent bone in his body.
More disabled persons are now begging, and those in wheelchairs pose an unnecessary risk. If there is a two-lane road in one direction, the wheelchair occupies sections of the two lanes as it straddles the broken white line. Motorists in adjoining lanes find it difficult to manoeuvre around the wheelchair and sometimes they escape by a hair's breadth.
Shouldering the blame in all of this are the police. Motorists express frustration and outrage at the police's inability to maintain law and order.
Or take illegal vending. There are always scenes where vendors refuse to yield ground and get into a tug of war with police. Then what appears as oppressive force by the police is pitted against seemingly helpless victims just trying to retain territory and eke out a living.
Commenting on the examples above, former commissioner of police, Owen Ellington, says, "Law and order and crime control are as much about police conduct as they are about the willingness of citizens to abide by the law. The police can't change culture or make law, and they have no power to punish. Punishment for crime is left to the discretion of the judge.
"The police see the same thing you see at the stop lights," says Ellington. "They can arrest beggars and windshield wipers and take them to court, but there is no law against aggressive begging in public, no law against idle and disorderly conduct in public, and no vagrancy law. So the police are up against it when they go to court, and before long, the beggars and wipers are back on the street and the police are accused once more of not doing their jobs.
"Or take illegal vending. Every time the police try to put a dent in it, the old Hawkers and Peddlers Act takes centre stage, and in no time the vendors are back on the street."
The act was changed this year, but many vendors have been socialised as to their sense of freedoms, so it's going to take years to alter that cultural mindset.
It is clear our laws have to be revised and brought into the modern era more quickly and the law has to be enforced in such a way that it triggers a shift in the societal mindset towards a culture of lawfulness.
Ellington adds, "If we are expecting order in Jamaica as we see in other countries, we have to understand that those governments have taken the time and given the thought to revise their laws and make them effective in controlling order in public spaces. We want the same results but we are not seriously driven by a rule-based order for this country.
"... Every time the authorities have a problem, they make it into a crime and hand it to the police. The police are then expected to redress all wrongs without the legislative tools and relevant policy prescriptions."
There must be a system where the law, revised and updated, reigns supreme and is administered efficiently so when there are conflicts, there is no gap time to consider alternatives.
Deputy Commissioner Novelette Grant deflects what she regards as the negativity bias against the police by accepting the socio-political context in which the police operate as well as reference the many uplifting programmes and activities that they undertake.
"In domestic violence situations, for example, we have a history of collaborative effort in training our police together with different agencies to ensure availability of the necessary expertise in an interdisciplinary way. This year, we went a step further. We have volunteer pastors assigned to police stations and trained by Dr Charles Freeman to provide counselling to perpetrators of domestic violence," says the deputy commissioner.
"Programmes such as youth violence prevention, and diversion from gang involvement and activities, require a multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach. There are institutions, agencies, and persons who are partnering with us to make a difference but we need more of that partnering. It is for the country to recognise we can do much more working together. It is more than the police. We need cohesive and collaborative effort."
The UWI's Dr Herbert Gayle reminds us that "Jamaica's homicide rate will keep security officers in necessary war-readiness mode."
By any yardstick, that is not easy. The police need an uplift, an updraft, a greater appreciation, not as public relations, but to aid in operational and administrative efficiency and to offset demoralisation.