Sat | Jan 25, 2020

Editorial | Chang’s ingratiating comments

Published:Wednesday | December 4, 2019 | 12:30 AM

It’s an old habit of Jamaican governments, through their national security ministers, to curry favour, or attempt to ingratiate themselves, with the police, even as they declare an intent of holding the constabulary to account. They, of course, usually err on the side of the latter, which, as far as we are concerned, may be the case with Horace Chang, who has the portfolio for national security in the Holness administration.

While attempting to give the impression of evenly straddling both horses at the same time, Dr Chang is giving credence, which we expect to be most people’s interpretation of his remarks, to the police’s claim that overreach by oversight body, the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), is empowering criminals and undermining their capacity to effectively fight crime.

“There is a feeling out there that because of INDECOM, they (persons opposed to the maintenance of law and order) can abuse the police and get away with it,” Dr Chang told this newspaper. “That is what is causing the problem.”

Then, in an attempt at balance, or perhaps to give himself plausible deniability of owning the argument, Dr Chang posits it as “an opinion of element of the police”, which “may have some basis in terms of practice” on which “I don’t want to make a judgement call”. At the same time, though, he wants to find ways to work with INDECOM “to ensure professional standards are maintained, but at the same time, policemen feel comfortable doing their job”.

In his contortions, Dr Chang runs the risk of appearing to give his own, and the Government’s, endorsement for a return by the police to the old ways of doing business, when they were often accused of extrajudicial killings, and of generally abusing citizens’ rights with impunity.

In the year of INDECOM’s launch in 2009, there were 263 fatal shootings by the security forces, all but a handful by the police. That increased by 36 per cent, to 357, the following year, but approximately a fifth of those homicides were associated with the controversial west Kingston operation when the security forces attempted to arrest the gangster, Christopher Coke. Critics argued that many of those homicides were unlawful.

Despite being an undulating graph since then, security forces’ homicides have generally trended downwards, reaching 137 in 2018. The relationship between the police and INDECOM, however, has largely remained sour, with disputes, some of which have had to be settled by the courts, ranging from INDECOM’s powers to question police officers, to the agency’s right to arrest and prosecute constables accused of crimes.

Even with the declared restraints on INDECOM’s powers, the police argue that the agency’s behaviour impacts the constabulary’s morale and the will of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) to take on criminals in a country with more than 1,000 homicides annually and one of the world’s highest per capita murder rates.

INDECOM HAS AN IMPACT

Last month, for instance, Patrae Rowe, the chairman of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file cops, questioned the independence of INDECOM, whose greater interest, he said, appeared to be achieving “convictions at the cost of our members’ liberty”. He also claimed that many police officers were afraid to do their jobs for fear of arrest by INDECOM, a clear echo of sentiments of Federation officials since the claim first made more than six years ago by one of Sergeant Rowe’s predecessors, Raymond Wilson.

With more than 12,000 members, the JCF represents a significant, and influential bloc of voters, which governments not only do not like to offend, but before which they are often willing to grovel to keep onside, which would, in part, explain why Dr Chang may believe INDECOM may probably be “excessive in applying the regulations of the law to the police”.

Dr Chang should, however, be reminded that while Jamaica’s police work in difficult circumstances, the force has a reputation for corruption and a jackbooted approach to crime-fighting. It also has been notoriously resistant to reform.

Notwithstanding, INDECOM has an impact, for the better, on its behaviour. Moreover, it is possible to have strong, efficient and effective policing within the framework of accountability. It happens elsewhere, which should be the aim of Dr Chang.