Thu | Oct 17, 2019

Orville Taylor | Negotiating public trust in crime fighting

Published:Sunday | September 15, 2019 | 12:24 AM
Senior Superintendent of Police Maurice Robinson.

It was a moment of nervousness for the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), not just because armed suspects were adding to the crime statistics. Rather, it was because a well-spoken senior officer was once again at the public mic and, more so, he sounded more like a guidance counsellor than an agent of repressive social control.

This is not the grand narrative of the police where either a gruff policeman is speaking about a serious subject, but his language and oratorical skills are put to the test as the English proves as hard to ride as a bucking mule; or he speaks smoothly, with a tilt of religious flavor, and gets an ‘F’ from the public.

Still, we saw it in The Taking of Pelham 123, Inside Man, John Q, and the eponymous The Negotiator, starring a combination of Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. With different scripts and plots, the common element was that police negotiators were facing situations where deadly force was at the fingertips of two sides and innocent lives were at stake.

However, this was Jamaica, Molynes Road, on the fringe of St Andrew South, a division where the criminal elements had become so barefaced that they forced the Government to call a state of public emergency (SOPE). Within walking distance of a police-military checkpoint, brazen men decided to make a withdrawal from a Cash Pot outlet although they neither had a ticket nor a chance. Perhaps they simply thought that they could slip through the back or that the security forces had dropped the SOPE in that area, but what happened next was fit for leading story of any CNN broadcast.

In lucid language, the ‘supe’ spoke. Calm, unambiguous, showing that he was well schooled in the use-of-force policy, the veteran cop, trained under the infamous Suppression of Crime Act (SOCA), gave a textbook presentation to the malefactors. It was a slap on the wrist in that the metal bangles clicked shut as the men were neatly carted off, ending the hours-long standoff.

No lives were lost. No damage was done to the reputation of the JCF. And the message that criminals will be caught was sent. True, many will find a dark underbelly in the saga, but the bravado of criminals got its most unequivocal response. One of the best deterrents is not what the punishment is likely to be but that deviants will be detected and caught and there will be punishment that is sufficiently severe.

It is also true that there was at least another situation where perpetrators with powerful weapons abducted proprietors and made their escape. Nonetheless, although that is a different scenario, there was also a silver lining because good intelligence and detective work led to the arrest of the suspects.

Yet, small voices over our shoulders echo the refrain, “Dem shoulda dun di bwoy dem!” Inasmuch a police officer seemed to have got away with an extra-judicial killing caught on film in Buckfield, St Ann, some years ago, puss and dog have different luck. Moreover, international and local use-of-force norms would preclude such murderous actions.

Knee-jerk reactions

The fact is, in a civilian-run society, this is the essence of social order, crime fighting, and justice. It is not about killing off all of the criminals, exterminating them like vermin. That is our animalistic, knee-jerk reaction where we call for blood. Don’t be mistaken. There is a time and place for the use of deadly force. Indeed, never mind how soft-spoken SSP Maurice Robinson is, he is a big cat, not a little puss. Robinson, whose denims have faded to light blue, has headed some of the toughest divisions in the country. Trained at a time when there was no major oversight and when fundamental human rights were suspended under the SOCA, this cop grew up in a Jamaica where we were slowly and deliberately taught that the lives of certain ‘others’ do not matter. Chief in the categories were Labourites, socialis’, ghetto youth, and certain vulnerable populations.

As angry as we are regarding the spate of violence, and in particular murders, we have to create an environment where human life is seen as sacrosanct.

Inasmuch as deadly force must be used when there is no alternative, non-criminals cannot have the same standards as wanton killers. One must understand that murderers take the lives of others because their minds are warped. We are designed to be social creatures that have empathy and are keen on protecting others. It is when we create the myth that other humans are less worthy of life, which we cannot give or replace, that the homicides get out of control.

What is being pushed here is not some Christian norm by a first-century Jewish workman who was nailed on to a tree and murdered by the chosen people. It is not even the highly watered-down and misaligned version dispensed by Jesuit men who walked around in ‘frocks’ all day when the Supe was at school. This is pure science because the evidence is that in democratic societies and communities where lives are valued, the overall homicide rate is low.

Where there is a high rate of people dying at the hands of the government agents, the homicide rates have tended to be high. It is not a perfect correlation, but in the USA, for example, 13 of the 14 states that maintain the death penalty have higher homicide rates than the national average.

What must be recognised is that only a small number of criminals – and that include robbers – like the idea of taking lives.

In a society where the police need cooperation from informants, the public needs to be assured that the giving up of a criminal loved one is not a death sentence.

SSP Robinson has scored a big one for not only the JCF, but for the country.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of 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.