Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Editorial | The PM and cockeyed justice

Published:Wednesday | November 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Andrew Holness has it horribly wrong. Or, at best, there is a deficit in his appreciation of this business of justice.

True justice, the Jamaican leader ought to be aware, isn't dichotomous or variegated. There can't be sequestered versions for the victims of crime, and another for the alleged perpetrators of bad deeds. Any such approach to justice would make a mockery of the ideal of equality under the law, give legitimacy to the dark forces of vengeance and impunity and undermine the foundations of civilisation and of liberal democracy.

Jamaica has, in the past, flirted with these hosts. Luckily, its institutions, contorted and bruised, avoided the abyss. We are, however, not immune from new lurches towards the precipice. That is why this newspaper is concerned about Prime Minister Holness' statement this week that appeared to question the logic of a singular application of justice, as well his seeming suggestion that the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), the body that investigates misbehaviour by the police, should be less than rigorous in its job.

Mr Holness spoke against the backdrop of Jamaica's renewed crisis of crimes, including a 27 per cent increase in homicides, which will this year past 1,600, the most murders since 2009. The Government is facing pressure to find solutions.

The administration's latest proposal is to deny bail to persons accused of gun-related crime, a reflection, as the government sees it, of the fact that more than 80 per cent of Jamaica's homicides are committed with guns. Further, Mr Holness wants more robust action from the police in going after criminals.

The former issue is, as have previous attempts at similar laws, likely to raise constitutional challenges over people's right to liberty, especially in the face of a justice system that is log-jammed and criminal cases often taking several years to be resolved.

But more dangerous is the contextual frame within which Mr Holness sought to exert pressure on INDECOM. There is little doubt that Jamaica's police force often confronts dangerous criminals, who sometimes shoot at them. They, at times, respond with deadly force, annually killing more than 100 citizens. Before INDECOM the figure was substantially higher.

Indeed, it was the constabulary's reputation for corruption and excessive use of force - which it investigated poorly, or not at all - that gave rise to INDECOM. They have had an uneasy relationship.

The police often claim that INDECOM's efforts to hold them accountable demotivate the ranks, contributing, ostensibly, to a rise in crime. In other words, the police drop their hands because they have to file documents when they are involved in fatal shoots or when complaints are made against them.

 

Influential Institution

 

The police tend to be good at co-opting politicians, who, themselves, are often seeking to ingratiate themselves with the constabulary, which accounts for a substantial block of votes as well as being an influential institution.

Neither of these situations is likely to apply to Mr Holness, but he shares the police's concerns about INDECOM. For, according to the prime minister, the police are too heavily criticised, which "is affecting the morale of the force".

Added Mr Holness: "I believe that sometimes INDECOM goes too far, and places our police officers on the retreat. I believe a balance has to be struck. We need our policemen to be motivated. We need our policemen to feel that they are protected to fight crime and not feel exposed."

INDECOM's data show that of the 649 cases it reviewed in the first nine months of this year, 97 per cent were dismissed. In less than two per cent were criminal actions recommended. But even that is beside the point. A professional police force should be able to do its job in an environment of transparency, willing to have its members held accountable for their actions.

That INDECOM should somehow retreat is to promote the idea of an unaccountable police force and offers a cockeyed notion of justice, such as Mr Holness seems to invite Jamaicans to embrace when he laments that there is not enough wailing for the victims of crime and implies that there are too many complaints against perceived police excesses. Justice is at her best when she sees no particular person and her scales are balanced.