Sun | Dec 10, 2017

Orville Taylor | Democracy over political expedience

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Terrence Williams, commissioner of INDECOM.
Officers of INDECOM gather evidence in Majesty Gardens after a shoot-out between the police and criminals who stole a car.
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Living in a democracy with the freest press in the Anglophone world is a big deal, and I don't take lightly the fact that I have a Constitution that guarantees me the right to criticise and make political utterance. It is the Constitution that though still flawed and incomplete, has served us and stands above all parliamentarians, irrespective of the partisan loyalty or expedience of those who are wielding power. Might never makes it right.

Still having tremors from the speedy introduction and passing of the NIDS bill behind the back of the Opposition, with the Lower House serving as a lubricated conduit, my nervousness spiked as the elected officials were at it again.

First, on a political platform, in a sea of green, the prime minister, speaking without a script (which always make me nervous when they do), criticised what he saw as the overreach of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM). This watchdog, a creature of Parliament and which only reports to the House and not to the prime minister, has had a testy relationship with the Jamaica Police Federation and the constabulary on the whole.

There has been a constant cry, and, perhaps with good reason, that there is much ambiguity in the roles of INDECOM and the police. Again, there is the reasonable argument that the activities of the officers of INDECOM and, perhaps, Commissioner Terrence Williams, have led to the police second-guessing themselves. Indeed, looking on as an outsider, I can fully comprehend how detectives, among the best homicide investigators in modern policing, might have major misgivings about anyone else meddling with their crime scenes.

 

MIRANDA RIGHTS

 

Moreover, as regards the powers that INDECOM has, I have always been uncomfortable with the police not appearing to have Miranda-type rights. These rights, in essence, mean that no accused person should be forced to make a statement that can be used to incriminate him. Nonetheless, the INDECOM Act does seem to give primary control of crime scenes to that entity and also forces the police to make statements that are then available for use in contemplation or furtherance of charges.

Say whatever you want about Terrence Williams, there are two things I will stick out my neck and say about him. First, he is a lawyer with more than a quarter-century of practice and teaching of law students, therefore, he knows the law. Second, as arrogant as he might be perceived to be by some, he acts based on what he believes he has the authority to do and what, in his view, is fair, lawful, and just. If Parliament, as distinct from the party, has problems with INDECOM, it must look at the legislation that it passed and make the necessary amendments.

Interestingly, Williams, a man from deep-green roots, was appointed when the commission was established under a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) regime in 2010. Ironically, it was the same JLP administration that disregarded the rule of law and put the interest of the party over that of the country. What a paradox! Increasing scrutiny of the police but removing the activities of the party from the gaze of the public, while flouting our Constitution and laws. That period in 2010 was one of the darkest in our democracy and our justice system.

Thus, given the fact that both the prime minister and the national security minister were part of that parliamentary group that placed party before country and eventfully led to the JLP's demise in the 2011 poll, no utterances that remind us of political interference in matters of security and justice should be made. More important, they should not be declared on a political platform. iIt is neither proper for good governance nor redound to their political benefit in the polls later.

On the political platform, my friend, National Security Minister Bobby Montague, with the prime minister in tow, pontificated that in the fight against crime, he was going to take to Parliament legislation that would deny bail to persons accused of gun crimes and seek mandatory sentences of 15-20 years for such offences. Clearly, that is a speech made up of much emotion, given the strange crime statistics we face. On the one hand, our overall crime statistics have shown a decline. And believe it or not, carjacking, rape, larceny, burglary, and robbery statistics are actually lower than the USA on a per-capita basis.

However, murders and shootings are high and have increased over the past two years, despite the impressive statistic that there has been a sustained increase in the homicide clear-up rates since 2014. Therefore, one can understand how frustrating it must be. True, there are some accused, who, while on bail, are charged for other major crimes, including shootings and murders. Yet, unless someone can show me the data, I will place my bet that they are the minority. In any event, how many murder accused do get bail? Nevertheless, the Constitution guarantees the right to bail to all accused unless there is risk of flight or that person is likely (with some evidence) to pose some danger.

In spite of my confidence in the abilities of the homicide detectives, there are some times when they get it wrong or where they charge someone for murder, although their consciences tell them that it is self-defence. In such cases, the police try not to be judge and jury and say, let a judge decide. A prime example is where even police officers are acting in fulfilment of their duties, and, for whatever reason, get charged. The murder accused could very well be the minister's bodyguard, trying to defend him. Taking the discretion from judges is a slap in the face of the judiciary. It says that our Parliament has no confidence in them.

What this country needs are clear and unequivocal signals from Government that it is big on transparency and justice while submitting to the rule of law.

For starters, let us see how open we are by advertising the post of chief justice so that many suitable candidates, whom the prime minister might not have thought interested, apply and be weighed.

- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.