Editorial | PM need not reinvent wheel on INDECOM
Either Prime Minister Andrew Holness has been woefully inattentive on the INDECOM issue or is afraid to commit the authority of his office on one side or the other, waiting to determine which way the political winds are blowing.
That’s not a posture good for the PM, or Jamaica, as it risks undermining accountability on the part of the security forces, thereby further weakening trust and confidence in the agencies of law enforcement.
Mr Holness should already have thrown his support behind amendments to the INDECOM law to clarify the agency’s powers of prosecution and arrest.
INDECOM (the Independent Commission of Investigations) is the eight-year-old agency that probes allegations of misconduct on the part of members of the Jamaica Defence Force and the Jamaica Constabulary Force, including, as a matter of routine, all cases of fatal shootings by the police. The agency was launched because of the long history of complaints about extrajudicial killings by Jamaica’s police and a deeply entrenched view that the cops were never any good at investigating anyone, much less themselves. Experiments with supposedly independent bodies, whose investigators where beholden to the police, proved to be colossal failures.
INDECOM, under its uncompromising leader Terrence Williams, has had a profound impact on the behaviour of police officers. Police homicides, previously upwards of 200 annually, have been halved, and the agency has been unafraid to haul suspected recalcitrants before the courts. Not surprisingly, INDECOM is not much liked by significant numbers of police officers who, having found that they are no longer above the law, complained that the agency’s no-nonsense approach sapped the confidence of crime fighters, who risk their lives confronting gangsters.
Understandably, in high-crime Jamaica, where there were 1,616 murders in 2017, such sentiments have support among significant swathes of the population, including politicians, who see the police as a large and influential voting bloc.
Ten days ago, the Court of Appeal ruled that INDECOM didn’t have the power it felt it had in statute. While its officials, like any other citizen at common law, may arrest and prosecute a police officer for any offence he is presumed to have committed, they couldn’t do so as agents of INDECOM. The commission, as an institution, had no powers of arrest and prosecution and, therefore, could offer no institutional protection to anyone purporting to do so in its name.
Prime Minister Holness told this newspaper he wished to study the court’s findings before pronouncing on the matter. However, the court ruling is not complex.
The PM plans, it seems, to establish a parliamentary committee to study the matter. That, on the face of it, is a reasonable position. Except, been there, done that.
In 2013, as is required under the INDECOM Act, a combined committee from Parliament’s two chambers began a review of the legislation. They completed their work in October 2015. Among their recommendations was amending the law to clarify INDECOM’s powers, which had been challenged in the courts, to “institute and undertake criminal proceedings”, “and to undertake criminal proceedings pursuant” to the act. Further, the committee recommended that it be made clear that INDECOM staff had “the powers to arrest as given by the law to a constable” and to “lay criminal charges and serve summonses”.
Mr Holness must know of that report as well as the long-standing debate over INDECOM’s powers. There is no need to attempt to reinvent the wheel. It is for Parliament to decide whether it will implement the recommendations of its committee and for Mr Holness, the leader, to signal the direction he intends his Government to take.