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Terrence Williams: End squaddie culture

Published:Sunday | April 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Terrence Williams
Norman Grindley/Chief PhotographerPolice personnel swarm a community on the outskirts of Harbour View, St Andrew, on April 13 in the hunt for suspected gangsters. Breaking the code of silence, or squaddie culture, is crucial to increasing public trust and cleaning up the constabulary, says INDECOM boss Terrence Williams.
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The following was an address by Terrence Williams, commissioner of the Independent Commission of Investigations, on April 1:

Culture forms character in ways that people are often unaware. In an institution like the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), more than 150 years old, there is no doubt that a deeply rooted organisational culture exists.

Some aspects of this culture, such as pride in service, brotherhood and sisterhood, are of great benefit to the force. But I would like you to consider an aspect of the culture of our police force that is of no benefit to its professional excellence. This culture breeds public distrust and encourages corruption. In some countries, particularly North America, they call it the 'blue code', which is an unwritten rule not to report your colleague's misconduct. In Jamaica, we often call it 'the squaddie culture'.

Squaddie culture was defined by the JCF Strategic Review in the following way: "Regardless of position, rank, location or situation, some staff will always respond to the needs of someone they were initially recruited and trained with, even if it means violating ethical, moral or legal boundaries ... ."

It is that last part which is the problem: even if it means violating ethical, moral or legal boundaries.

This culture is often rationalised by the following factors:

- Stress - "My colleague was stressed out; he was under pressure."

- Error - "He made a mistake; he is, after all, only human."

- The end justifies the means - "How else was this criminal going to be caught? He really has done society a favour."

- The 'us and them' posture - as if the police are so separated from society that they must stand together, even if a member of the force is acting improperly.

The code of silence has simple rules that take different forms in different territories, normally these forms are:

- Collusion in making reports.

- Saying as little as possible.

- Never initiating a report of misconduct.

- Answering only questions asked, not volunteering information.

- Not giving details.

- Denying accusations

- Saying: "I don't know", "I didn't see that", "I don't remember."

 

WILLFUL BLINDNESS

In England, a police officer, instead of saying "I didn't see that", he would say he was "collecting the fares", indicating that when all this was happening, he wasn't looking in that direction, he was "collecting the fares".

This culture is a bond for uttering falsehood or wilful blindness enforced by the acknowledgement of a mutual destruction that will follow disclosure.

Most of the men and women in law enforcement are committed to making their communities safe and putting their lives on the line to achieve this end. MOST people become police officers because they have a desire to serve and protect. Others, however, believe that some join because they seek the attendant privileges that the uniform, the badge and the gun provide. Increasingly, people have also formed the cynical view that the culture instils a sense of entitlement to wield arbitrary power and authority over the rest of society.

To design an ideal culture in the police force, we need to think about the institution not in the narrow sense of law enforcement, but about the influences/influencers, ideas, images and practices that form the fabric of this culture.

The main influencers within the police force must be its leadership.

It must be recognised that leadership is not just about rank, position or title. It is primarily about duty.

It is often said that children live what they learn; the same is true for adults. If you look at the young constable who joins under your guidance as inspectors, they are children to policing and are learning policing from you. Almost daily a young officer will observe senior officers, and if they see abuse of citizens, while other officers do not stand up for what is right, these young recruits may adopt the same behaviour. Once you start accepting that kind of behaviour, you may have corrupted yourself.

It is a great is time to say enough is enough. It is a great time not to get caught up in the culture and have your behaviour coloured by it.

 

SPEAK UP

The trouble is that the officer in trouble who said 'had to do' something will often find himself having to do the act more than once. Furthermore, covering up will require lying - and before you know it, you are in a quicksand of corruption.

Speak up. Tell INDECOM. Tell your senior officers. Let 'informer' be as good a word in the police force as we want it to be in the wider community.

The third ideal would be practices, and this is predominantly related to the code of silence which I mentioned earlier. The National Institute of Ethics (in the USA) concluded extensive research on the code of silence some years ago with almost 4,000 police officers participating. Researchers recorded the five most common reasons why they adhered to the code of silence included:

- Fear of being ostracised.

- Not wanting their colleague to be disciplined or to lose their job.

- Fear of being fired themselves.

- Fear of being 'blackballed'.

- No confidence that anything would be done if the matter was reported.

In Jamaica, we have a Protected Disclosure Act which protects police officers if they would like to make a disclosure of unlawful conduct in the police force. It protects them from any sanction for disclosure. It protects them from any victimisation after you have made this disclosure.

In the end, it goes back to leadership, because leadership has the greatest influence in determining culture.

In a democracy, a police service is best able to serve and protect when their members enjoy the respect and confidence of the population. Because this means cooperation, it means John Brown will give you information about a criminal element in the community because they trust that the information will used for good, and not evil.

I am happy to report that particularly in the last four years, we at INDECOM have been receiving information about crimes and corrupt practices of some police officers from their colleagues. This is encouraging to us, as it is an indication that the tide is turning in relation to the code of silence.

I can think of important cases that we now have before the courts now where such information has assisted in major investigations.

I encourage all police personnel to aim to be on the right side of history, to be true to the noble reason why they became a police officer; and why they are now serving as an inspector.

Silence in the face of injustice is in itself unjust and oppressive. Discourage the squaddie culture.

- Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.