Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Mark Wignall | Attacks on cops the final scare tactic

Published:Sunday | October 1, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Commissioner of Police George Quallo has his hands full trying to curb crime.
File Police personnel discuss notes at a crime scene in Spanish Town where five persons were shot, one fatally, on Wednesday, September 13. As Jamaica's murder wave worsens, the police have found themselves being prime targets of attacks.
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More than a few years ago when I interviewed a murderer, robber, and rapist who called himself 'Captain Blacks', who was once a gang member running with the notorious Natty Morgan, two things he told me have remained riveted in my mind.

'Yu si all dis avenue weh yu live pon. If just one house have a legal firearm and the criminal know but don't know is which house, dem nah rob nuh house pon dis road. Dem nah tek nuh chance."

The other was, "Jamaican people don't know sey is police a save dem nuff time or gunman completely tek ova di land."

The most recent attacks on policemen at their homes while off duty have brought about the usual speculation, but the Police High Command believes that the attacks are related to revenge killings on cops who have dispatched their criminal cronies to the cemetery.

In many inner-city communities where gunmen are bred like flies, the law-abiding citizens live in fear of them and tend to 'see an blind, hear and deaf'. So, four or five gunmen will arrive back in their communities at 6 a.m., and it is known that they had been on a mission of murder. The entire community clams up. They say nothing to the police.

Of course, the gunmen revel in the power of that guaranteed silence. To support that, every now and then, they will share their spoils of war with key people in the community who have no power to refuse the loot.

Going after the police who kill their cronies in shoot-outs is the final straw, the ultimate back-up mechanism to ensure that their national rampage can continue unimpeded, and even armed members of the JCF will want to think twice before confronting them.

 

Public support and bipartisan approach needed

 

We have been told repeatedly that members of the JCF are not allowed to wear masks when on operation. The rule governing that was quite simple: the public was entitled to transparency, and the police had to be accountable to the public as JCF members were serving and protecting.

I am all in favour of transparency, but in this delicate matter where armed criminals have decided to launch direct attacks on members of the JCF, we may be forced to make specific tweaks to the rules.

There is nothing benign about the type of criminality being faced by this nation. The public knows this, and increasingly, many people are torn between wanting to give the police their support and protecting their own lives. It is an uncomfortable balancing act.

The politicians should lead off in this with the opposition PNP fully expressing its support for broad, if not specific, policy under the ZOSOs. The PNP is wasting a lot of political capital in seeming to be using a magnifying glass looking for cracks instead of offering its support for the initiative launched under the JLP administration.

The antecedents of our political culture make this problematic in our zero sum political brinkmanship where the PNP is quite uncomfortable in opposition. If, however, there is one aspect of crime fighting that the PNP should join the government in finding more workable solutions, for it should be in publicly condemning the recent reprisals against our cops.

 

Criminals want free rein

 

The young breed of criminals are a set who are unafraid to practise in-your-face criminality, even posting pictures on social media of them posing with their guns. To many of them, it is their ultimate testosterone high, their stepping out into life, their final claim to the top of the totem pole of power.

They are saying to the JCF, take that! Like it or lump it! We know, of course, that when our police personnel are off duty, those who are not classified among the rogue element want to do normal things like the rest of us. They want a beer, a game of dominoes, participate in 'running a boat', going home to watch cable TV, or sleep in peace with their families.

Many of them must now be fearful while go out on dangerous operations against desperate criminals with high-powered arms and endless rounds of ammunition. How supportive it would be for them to see the Opposition join arms with the Government and the public in condemning this new type of criminality!

This is not about whether the police are to be loved or hated. It goes much further than that. This is about the criminals making a last-ditch effort to choke off the fight against their murderous ways by driving real fear into members of the JCF who would dare take them on.

 

Can't cede more power to the streets

 

Many of us remember when the unruly crowd was gathered outside the Central Police Station in September of 1998. They were there in support of the Matthews Lane strongman, the infamous Zekes.

What many among the public did not know was that most of those people shouting at the station gates for the release of Zekes who had earlier been taken in by the police had been coerced, some at gunpoint, to go out and protest against his detention.

Then that seminal moment, a moment of utter infamy. Police bosses were on a megaphone urging the unruly crowd to go to their homes and let the law take its course. The crowd would have none of it.

Then Zekes was brought out and given the megaphone. It was only after he spoke and implored them to return to their homes that they dispersed. In that moment, the lawful state ceded its power and handed it over to the street rabble.

We have been paying for that ever since.

Remember, however, that the police are far from faultless in their extremes in fighting against criminals. I have been in inner-city communities where, close to two decades ago, when a notorious gunman had been dispatched by the police, a squad jeep would drive through the community with the dead body of the gunman displayed on the front.

Maybe it was a psychological blowback by the police who had killed a man who many saw as their hero. Over time, all it did was create distance between the people and the police and increase the bond between the powerless poor and their criminal benefactors.

All of that must now be seen as horrid-smelling water under the bridge. The Government, the Opposition, and the general public must stand up and recognise the common enemy among us. All of us must speak with one voice.

While I can appreciate that the PNP is too much taken up with fighting an upcoming by-election and ditching its training wheel in Opposition, a bigger fight is ahead. The very soul of this country is at stake.

Our policemen and women are human, but they are the fighters in the battlefront of this war launched against us by armed criminals. We want the members of the JCF to be superheroes, but they cannot be.

They cry, they sleep. they sometimes lie awake in bed wondering if the fight is worth it, especially with gunmen personally targeting them. We need to make our voices heard and make the men and women in the JCF know that they are not alone in the long haul.

We will never be there at the front lines, but there may come a day when we are forced to call on them to come and save us from the common enemy. The marauders outside our gates.

The commissioner may wish to reconsider if special missions or operations can require that police personnel don masks. As I said before, it is a delicate matter and has no simple fix.

- Mark Wignall is a political and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.