Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Don't bash the police from afar

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Commissioner of Police George Quallo is under great pressure to rein in galloping murders.
A policeman breaks up a fight between two boys at Barry Street, Kingston, on November 2. Social intervention is key to normalising a hostile population, writes columnist Mark Ricketts.
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This is the final of a five-part series themed 'It is a disgrace how we treat the police'.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF's managing director who was recently in Jamaica, had, on a previous visit, described our country this way: "Jamaica is a country whose culture has captivated the globe. It is a country of enchanting beauty with a freshness and grace that stir the soul. Its people are blessed with a gift of inspiration."

Yet, in the 55 years since our Independence, our public policy initiatives, or lack thereof, have resulted in our country moving from having one of the lowest homicide rates to one that now puts us in the top five in the world. Our level of lawlessness, public disorder, and social dysfunction stands in stark contrast to the 'what if' theories many of us expound, theories nurturing our island being truly the pearl of the Caribbean.

While murders are horrific and lawlessness stalks the land, we have failed to modernise our police force. In addition, take-home pay for the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day is a disgrace. Equally disgraceful is the fact that while the JCF has more oversight bodies than any other police force in the world, there is no money in the legal defence fund for our policemen and women in what many experts regard as the most hazardous profession.

One former Chicago cop and current army officer who did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan pointed out that few people understand the limited, or literally, no response time a police officer has when patrolling the streets.

War is brutal, but you usually have an idea who the enemy is, which gives you a fraction of a second to process information not so with policing. And because policing involves taking on your own people, in your own country, everybody, after the fact, has an ideal solution; 'why didn't you shoot him in the leg instead?', and 'didn't you know it was a piece of wood he had when he lunged at you in the dark, and not a knife?'

Making matters worse for our police is what medical doctor and Gleaner columnist Dr Garth Rattray describes as the malevolent mix of social malfunction and malcontent, "and, as long as that persists, we will be constantly plagued by dangerous, antisocial criminals who have no real purpose in life and, likewise, see no purpose for ours."

While the constabulary is up against all this, there are cries of corruption and incompetence to contend with. In this context, one feels a sense of empathy for Commissioner George Quallo - a good man whose entire life is his country and whose adult life is the police. He wants so badly for his country to be safe and secure and for the JCF to be modernised and well respected.

He puts in the long hours where day merges into night because he knows the crime statistics can't remain where they are, the negative image of the police must be changed, and the absence of trust between the public and the police has to be reversed.

"This is the 150th year of the JCF," says the commissioner. "We are a professional organisation and that sense of professionalism must be evident throughout, and must be stamped indelibly in the minds of everyone. Being accepted and respected by the citizenry means that we have to be trustworthy, and we must remove from the public's mind any question of corruption."

 

Rebuilding trust

 

To this end, the commissioner is currently placing great emphasis on rebuilding the Anti-Corruption Unit, especially as corruption has been referenced in academic studies, and commissioned reports, and in polls capturing public sentiment, perception, and reality.

Another focus is to intensify the system of checks and balances in the organisation. "We are reorganising the inspectorate arm of the constabulary which deals with investigation, and we will be focusing on an audit of what we currently do and what we should be doing."

Commissioner Quallo is so bent on rooting out any vestige of corruption that he is mandating all area and divisional officers to do their own audit of division stations to ensure quality control.

He is also placing great emphasis on recruitment. "We have to get the right people from the outset to give ourselves a better chance at maintaining high ethical standards."

A major concern of the JCF's top cop is the ease with which individuals in public conversation and the written word repeat the phrase, "the corrupt police force". "It's as if everybody wants to criticise us from afar, but no one wants to bring us the evidence so we can pursue the allegations and allow the investigation to take its course, and then the appropriate action can be applied. It is so easy for people to write and talk, "the police are corrupt," but if you have information, contact us, provide a statement to us, and follow through so that we can get to the corrupt person and root out the corrupt act."

Hearing Commissioner Quallo's passion, in his commitment to a highly ethical police force and one worthy of public respect, and listening to his own unrehearsed humility, when he muttered in a moment of quiet reflection, "God give me strength to do the right thing," there has to be hope that change is possible.

Giving more credence to this optimism is the commissioner's own forthrightness, physical bearing and strength, and his knowledge of police business and policing.

He has a way about him that is personable and engaging, qualities which are sorely needed in a force that is undermanned and under-resourced.

While he is pulling out all the stops to build society's trust in the constabulary, he is doing so against a backdrop of murders increasing at an alarming rate.

Securing trust in such an environment means that the force must reduce crime, allay the fears of the public, and must provide a comfort zone for its citizens. If it can't, the society will continue to bash the police.

"We need more up-to-date legislation to deal with lawlessness and crime-related issues, but oftentimes public policies take forever to become law. There is also the reality of so much dysfunction in the society, which many see as the root cause of crime, and therefore needing to be tackled first, as against more robust policing. Still, we can't lose sight of the fact that serious crime reduction is a function of police effectiveness.

"Social initiatives are imperative and should move in tandem with what we are doing, but members of the public are looking for operational effectiveness from us so that they can move around their communities more freely without the constant threat of being robbed, or raped, or shot at by criminals."

If the commissioner and his staff could make an immediate impact on crime disorder through police effectiveness, freedom could be enjoyed in an orderly way. Hopefully, too, the police will be treated much better by the country it serves.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.