Mon | Apr 24, 2017

Baltimore: iceberg tip of US police impunity

Published:Sunday | May 3, 2015 | 5:00 AMDr Orville Taylor
President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question about the Baltimore riots during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, last Friday.
Adrian Roberson celebrates as the Rev Pamela Coleman (left) speaks last Friday after State Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced criminal charges against all six officers suspended after Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody in Baltimore.
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President Barack Obama visited last month, and like his supporters and antagonists in Congress, he has some ideas about the human-rights violations in Jamaica, as well as the way we have treated gays and how the police have allegedly maltreated thousands of Jamaicans and slaughtered our young black men with impunity.

This last notion is now likely to gather traction with what looks like recriminating action being taken against local human-rights advocacy group, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), playfully called JF-Gay by some elements.

I'm not sure what differentiates the JFJ from other advocacy groups such as J-FLAG, Jamaica Environment Trust and Jamaica AIDS Support, since all are seeking not just the enforcement of existing laws to protect the vulnerable, but, importantly, the enactment of not-yet-existent legislation. Indeed, my ideological favourite, National Integrity Action (NIA), has long been pressing the Government, across two administrations, to put in place statutes to enhance the transparency in governance and thus reduce the level of corruption, perceived and real.

Nonetheless, an unwitting effect of the activism of such groups is that they can present exaggerated images of the degree of human-rights violations by highlighting the anecdotal and ignoring statistic trends. Consequently, in response, some powerful countries have been beating up on us over our 'massacring' of black youth by the police, the genocide against gays, and corruption of our judicial system.

Over the past few years, attention has been drawn to reports against Jamaican police and the number of police fatal shootings, which JFJ and others like the Tivoli Committee advocate irresponsibly label 'extra-judicial killings'. Thus, the American authorities, and I'm sure with the endorsement of our more civilised British partners and the Canadians, activated their powers and rights under the Leahy legislation and reduced the level of military assistance to our armed units, in particular, the police.

metamorphoses

Named after Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, who introduced it in 1997 as part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, the Leahy Law has gone through several metamorphoses, until its most recent version in 2013. In essence, it prevents the United States from giving assistance to any foreign armed unit, where there is "credible information that such unit has committed grave human-rights violations with impunity". It means that they either go scot-free or Government says there is no hanky-panky.

Freedom House, the international free press organisation, which labels our media environment as the freest in the Americas, describes it as "an invaluable tool in preventing US assistance to military or police units that commit human-rights abuses" and added that "it is invoked sparingly and only in egregious cases of specific violence".

Now, I'm totally in support of bringing rogue killers - not to be mistaken with Kelliers - to justice. After all, I do know of cases where police have murdered civilians and have not even suffered a departmental reprimand. But it is wrong and dishonest to label all police homicides extrajudicial killings, especially when our internal and external agencies have only found 30 per cent of them to be controversial. Too many, but still not the majority.

However, as regards Senator Leahy and others, this is a bad case of picking a fudge stick from the eye of the Jamaicans while ignoring the lumberjack and shouts of 'timber' in their own eyes. The killing of Freddy Gray, just a few kilometres from the Capitol, Congress and White House, is not atypical or isolated. Large numbers of civilians are killed each year by American police and most of them look like Obama.

Here are some facts. Across the entire United States, there is no universal standard for policing. Neither is there a central policing entity which has oversight over the misconduct of local police departments. Neither the USA nor Canada has an independent commission of investigations as we have here.

more data needed

Unlike Jamaica, where we have centralised statistics and our police are forced to produce data on homicides and police fatalities, this is absent in the USA. In fact, President Obama, in a meeting with the task force appointed to investigate the protests in Missouri, stemming from the police killing of black 19-year-old Mike Brown, emphasised "... the need to collect more data".

Typically, only 'justifiable homicides' are recorded; and these average just fewer than 400 annually. However, the Guardian's Tom McCarthy presented figures that show an additional 540-plus, making the total close to 930. But even with the official numbers, some 2,718 persons were killed between 2005 and 2011. In 2012, 91 per cent of 'suspects' killed in Chicago were black and 87 per cent in New York. Yet blacks average 30 per cent of the population in these cities. These findings are the national norm. Interestingly, only 41 policemen have faced charges.

But beyond the grand narrative of Jamaican corruption, one would be shocked that the same survey that says that Jamaican police are corrupt shows that 12 per cent of us have bribed cops. This number is surprisingly close for Americans and Britons, with numbers of seven and eight per cent, respectively.

And pick up the file from the drawers and drop your jaw over the finding that six per cent of Jamaicans have paid a bribe to a member of the judiciary. Hold your horses! The figure for America is 15 per cent, and for the ultra-clean system within which we find the pristine Privy Council ... wait for it ... 21 per cent! Yes, Jamaica! One out of every five Englishmen has paid a bribe to 'His Honour'.

These are not my data; they are generated by the very same agency that says that Jamaica has a 38/100 corruption perception index, and that 86 per cent of us believe that Officer Dibble is corrupt or very corrupt.

I am not trying to justify or cover our misdeeds here; however, those who judge us need to check themselves, too. By the way, I must admit, their protesters write better placards than ours.

- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.