Editorial | Put police bill before parliamentary committee
Instinctively, we support the Government's plan to introduce a new law to replace the one under which the police force now operates, as was reiterated by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in his New Year's message. For, like most Jamaicans, this newspaper believes something needs to be done about the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), including its structure, processes of governance, and accountability.
The fact is that the JCF is now a century-and half years old, and except for a few nips-and tucks here and there, it is essentially the same organisation that was established in the aftermath of Paul Bogle's Morant Bay Rebellion: a paramilitary institution in which the culture of force is a critical part of its character. Unfortunately, too, the organisation has developed a reputation for corruption, and in Jamaica's high-crime environment, and given the impunity with which criminals operate, the JCF's competence is increasingly called into question.
For decades, however, the JCF has appeared impervious to all attempts at significant reform, which, according to Mr Holness, is critical for it "to be able to effectively lead the fight against crime". So, according to the prime minister, "this new legislation will ... focus, among other things, on preserving the integrity of the men and women who serve, to ensure that corruption within the ranks of the police services does not compromise the ability of the force to fight crime".
Those are all principles with which anyone will agree. We do!
But, as they say, the devil, or in this case, the efficacy of the idea, is in the details. Which the public, including this newspaper, doesn't yet have. Insofar that anything is known generally, it seems that the proposals appear aimed at reinforcing the coercive authority of the constabulary, without achieving the balance implied in Mr Holness' remarks.
It is important, therefore, if the Government aims to build consensus for the project, that it urgently takes the public into its confidence by giving them more than this broad sketch of what it has in mind and inviting their contributions to a genuine dialogue on the proposed law. This should have happened a year ago, coincidence on the government's disclosure of the plan for the legislation in its stand-by agreement with the International Monetary Fund, in the form of a white paper on the issue.
INVITING PUBLIC DEBATE
In that statement of intent to the Fund, the administration promised that a review of all existing laws relating to the JCF would have been completed by last October, leading to the drafting of the bill. So, by now, a green paper should have been on the table, with the government, with the benefit of the public's initial feedback, having refined its thinking.
At this point, Mr Holness can skip the green paper stage, but have the national security minister publish a white paper on the matter, inviting public debate. At the same time, the Government, even ahead of the publication of the draft bill, should establish a joint select committee of parliament to begin open discussion, including contributions from civil society, of the policies contained in the white paper. These discussions would be further advanced once the bill is ready. In other words, the prime minister should avoid the fiasco of the sensitive National Identification Systems which the Government strong-armed through Parliament with inadequate consultation, for which the administration is now trying to compensate with a public-education programme of sorts.
In the meantime, as the Government drafts the new police service law, two things are necessary in whatever is formulated. One is that the management of the constabulary must have greater flexibility in the hiring, firing and disciplining of staff, and its leadership should be subject to civilian governance and policy oversight.