Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Mark Ricketts | It's a disgrace how we treat the police (Part 2) - Jamaica's crime cop-out

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Police assigned to the zone of special operations check identification documents at a checkpoint in Denham Town, west Kingston.

The police have always taken it on the chin. Over the years, actors in blue seam or red seam, reprising the role of the police in local plays, were usually conniving, or stupid, or con men, to the delight of the crowds. The police, as the villain, earned no respect. If the performing arts capture or influence the essence of a nation's soul, our police have very little in the way of redemption.

Compounding the police image problem is the frequent reporting of negative behaviour by media houses, veteran columnists, and even by the minister of justice.

Gordon Robinson declared in his April 23, 2017 column, "The JCF will remain CORRUPT beyond redemption." Another Gleaner columnist Mark Wignall wrote one week earlier, April 16, 2017, "that one policeman told him a few months ago he was not being carried out on patrol because he was too clean and most of what they were doing on patrol was hustling for businessmen and organised criminals".

Ian Boyne, on July 17, 2016, offered the following: "Hard policing in the hands of hard-hearted and corrupt policemen and women is a serious challenge. A major, urgent and immediate need is not only for new recruits to the police force, but for new recruits who are patriotic, ethical, and not 'licky-licky'."

Some months ago, the minister of justice, in a rather unfortunate presentation captured on TV, used sleight of hand trickery, depicting movement of an invisible object from the right hand to the left, accompanied by the words, that's the sort of thing the police will do.

In so far as the medium is the message, the imagery being reinforced is that the JCF is institutionally corrupt, is inclined to excessive use of force, and is not entitled to respect. Listen to the 'curse-out' the police get if they insist on giving a ticket for an offence.

Last Monday, most people saw on TVJ instances of police powerless as they were jostled and arm-wrestled by motorists they had stopped for infractions. It was a disgrace, affirming that lawlessness has no boundaries.

If lawlessness has a tie-in to crime, as a society, we are trapped, yet we keep vilifying our police. We are trapped as well by new data revealing murders up 27 per cent over a similar period last year.

We need to look at the landscape of crises and rapid changes in our society to see whether these changes were too much, too fast, and too drastic, for any police force to have anticipated such developments and respond accordingly.

- The massive rural-urban migration during the 1950s and '60s created social dysfunction and policing problems, which unfortunately we are grappling with to this day. Former Police Commissioner Dr Carl Williams notes: "There are too many squatter communities with stagnant water, zinc fences, electricity being stolen, and anger and aggression on edge. These illegal and unregulated settlements, with their narrow walkways, no clearly defined addresses, and little trap doors in zinc fences, were not put together with policing in mind."

- Then there was a spate of riots and uprisings all in a five-year period. The most notable were the 1960 Claudius Henry rebellion, the 1963 Coral Gardens uprising, and the 1965 anti-Chinese riots.

- Paralleling all this were the political garrisons in the mid-sixties with their dons, criminal gangs, at a time of huge inflows of illegal guns and high-powered weapons. Guns, riots, rebellion, the ease with which land was captured (today, there are an estimated 750,000 living in illegal settlements) and the emergence and growth of political garrisons, were individually and collectively tsunamis. It forces me to ask, how many police forces would have been trained and ready to successfully deal with all that?

Making it even more difficult for the JCF is governments' tendency to think that our public servants should be driven by dedication, with remuneration an unnecessary by-product, and modern equipment and technology a capital budget undertaking, where capital is largely non-existent.

Imagine a constable, five years in the force, receives an annual salary of $724,431, a housing allowance of $329,731, and a set overtime pay of $172.636, irrespective of the overtime hours worked. That's a monthly salary of $102,235 before deductions, after which comes, rent, utilities, transportation, groceries, lunch, insurance. Recently, one division head said to me, "Sometimes I organise a cooked lunch. I am tired of seeing them work such long hours with just a box drink and a bun for lunch."

 

RODNEY RIOTS

 

In 1968 came the Rodney riots, where the police confronted an arrogant and intolerant group of educated elites whose gospel of socialism, communism, and defence of the black masses would correct the social injustice for the underbelly of society.

I was on campus during the Rodney riots in 1968. I watched my fellow students in their impressive red gowns confronting the police, who were tentative - with no riot gear, no protective vest, no baton, no guns, no nothing, except a few hidden spray canisters. I thought of the imbalance of class and standing versus power and no social positioning.

The police had been sent to Mona Road to prevent students leaving the campus to make common cause with the urban poor, and the inner-city youths craving for equal rights and justice. In a flash, the students, along with lecturers, broke through the police cordon and dashed down Mona Road, with the police chasing behind with canisters aloft, unable to keep pace. The UWI protesters uplifted and emboldened the oppressed. Before long, Kingston was ablaze and looting presumably tempered injustice.

The biggest losers in all of this were the police. Forced by the State, they had to align themselves with the oppressors, the capitalist owners of business, disparagingly known as Babylon, against the real sufferers. The police role now as Babylon, a wicked and cursed lot, was cemented.

They were no longer protectors but villains; now on the side of authority, constraining poor people's freedom.

Then came the 1970s with tribalised political violence, increases in revenge killings, and sharp ideological divisions: uptown vs downtown, capitalist vs socialist, oppressor vs oppressed, manager vs worker.

So much of the politics in the two decades following Independence was coarse, with political interference and party politicisation the new normal. The language of leading representatives in both parties captured the Wild West. This seeped into the pores of the wider society and the security sector had the unenviable task of coping with lawlessness, corruption, murder, mayhem, and the widespread use of illegal guns.

The continued decline and sluggishness of the Jamaican economy have produced yet another wrinkle for the police, namely, the internationalisation of criminal networks and crime linked to income-generating activity. In the 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that the assets of the Shower Posse exceeded US$300 million, and the Gully posse, US$100 million. And sociologist, Professor Anthony Harriott, points out, "The murder rate is no longer primarily driven by domestic, communal type disputes, or even political competition, but rather by materially acquisitive crimes and conflicts, arising from various types of illegal and informal transactions."

With the landscape of criminality rapidly expanding and changing, the security sector keeps adjusting, but it takes time to get the right mix of hard policing, soft policing; the levels of rights-depriving legislation; or the extent of judicial punishment.

With Jamaica's frequent twists and turns and undeclared civil war, policing in Jamaica has to be one of the most ungrateful and hazardous professions. The offset: one job, 55 possible careers.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.