It is rare for the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) to have a disaster-free moment. The organisation seems to stumble from one crisis into another. The media constantly stream news of questionable fatal shootings, arrests for corruption, and an assortment of other incidents when police officers are allegedly caught committing serious crimes ranging from murder to armed robbery and sexual offences.
The never-ending flow of stories undermines the good work done by the majority of our cops, and all too frequently, the people of Jamaica are left in a state of anger, distrust, and despair,
wondering how the country can possibly fight crime with such a dysfunctional police force.
The year 2014 was no exception to this familiar and depressing pattern. It started off with more than 20 fatal shootings in January. The collective protests and accusations of foul play by citizens, Jamaicans for Justice, and other key stakeholders seemed to stem the increase in the numbers of
suspicious fatal shootings.
Later in the year, when police fatal shootings became fewer, Mario Dean's tragic and avoidable death, in police custody demonstrated that the policies and mechanisms to prevent such incidents were simply not working.
It is clear that the systems and processes of management and supervision designed to protect those in custody were not fit for purpose. Perhaps Mario Dean's death was one too many as even the Jamaicans who rarely make a collective and sustained protest were horrified by this incident, which galvanised citizens and civil groups alike into unanimous condemnation.
The JCF's woes did not stop there. The sharp exit of Commissioner Owen Ellington in circumstances that the public have yet to be fully apprised, was a new low. Up until the time of his departure, Ellington had generally won the confidence of most Jamaicans. Although his public appearances were too infrequent, he was articulate, confident, and appeared to be taking the JCF in the right direction. All areas of crime were down, including the all-important murder rate.
The sudden resignation of
Mr Ellington has been largely forgotten by the media. People have moved on, and interest groups, civil society, and politicians have welcomed the appointment of Dr Carl Williams as commissioner of police.
The bleak picture I have painted above will, I am sure make many a good police officer cringe, and quite rightly so, because this is obviously not the whole story.
The JCF reminds me of a massive supertanker carrying millions of gallons of crude oil across the ocean. When watching a vessel of this size, it is almost impossible to see it change course. Its huge, elongated hull carves through the waves in an apparent straight line, and if a course is altered, it takes time for the manoeuvre to be recognised.
The JCF is changing course, and it is doing it for the better. It is slow, but steady, work in progress. Since the dark years of around 2005 when the murder rate was in danger of exceeding 2,000 a year, the JCF has come a long way. This year, the murder rate is at the lowest recorded level since 2003. All other categories of serious crime, except burglary, are down, and although it was unthinkable a few years ago, the murder rate may actually fall below 1,000 this year.
The fact is that intelligence-led policing and an ever-improving response to serious crime through high-visibility policing in crime hot spots is working. Police deployment is becoming smarter. Through detailed analysis, good intelligence, and effective operational deployment, the men and women of the JCF, supported by their colleagues in the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), are making a difference, and by their actions, they are saving lives.
In some communities where the most heinous and horrific crimes have been committed by a minority of armed criminals hell bent on terrorising the community, the JCF has been successful, and residents who left these areas in fear of their lives have felt sufficiently confident to return to their homes.
In one instance, a family
actually returned to a house they had been forced to desert only to find it that had been commandeered by the JCF as a police post. They had to politely ask the police for their home back!
Throughout my tenure as deputy commissioner in charge of crime, I frequently said that the scourge of crime in Jamaica could not be solved by any individual commissioner, minister of national security, or single policy. I also said that the process to reduce crime would take five to 10 years to reap any real benefits.
Like the supertanker, the JCF has set a new course, and we are beginning to see the benefits of a new direction. With Williams at the helm, in 2015, the JCF will achieve further reductions in crime and the rebuilding of trust and confidence with the public.
The changes in police culture, the modification in policing style, and the increased ability of investigators to do a better job - to get it right first time - has led to a progressive improvement in the detection rate.
High-profile cases have been won by improved investigative techniques. During 2014, there have been a number of multiple murders in Bog Walk and May Pen, where three or four people have died at the same time. In all of these major investigations, the perpetrators have been arrested and charged.
Good working practices, including frequent reviews of serious crime investigations by senior detectives are now commonplace, so, too, is the concept of teams of detectives working together, prioritising cases, and using technology to assist with supporting forensic evidence.
All of these methods are helping to build capacity and increasing the opportunities for arrests and convictions. The clear-up rate for serious crime is fast approaching 50 per cent. The higher the probability of being identified as the perpetrator the greater the risk of getting caught and convicted.
More can be done at little or no cost to the JCF. Closer working partnerships with others can be of real assistance to serious crime investigation. A greater emphasis is needed on keeping victims and their families informed on the progress of investigations. An effective team of highly trained family liaison officers is needed to keep victim's family and friends informed as well as further efforts to ensure witnesses are given adequate support.
Still more work will need to be done to improve crime detection rates. For example, the rate of fingerprint identifications is well below the level it should be. Some basic changes in working practices, management and supervision will greatly improve this tried and tested method of identifying the perpetrators of crime. By improving the rate of identification of latent fingerprints left at crime scenes more evidence can be produced to secure convictions at court.
Needless to say the long awaited DNA legislation will be welcomed and will, in a short period of time, prove to be a massive assistance to past and current crime investigations.
Quite recently in the United Kingdom, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), a statutory organisation with responsibility for inspecting police forces found crime investigation was sub-standard in 18 of the 43 police forces. The HMIC also found that many officers were lacking vital investigative skills. I make this point because despite the obvious shortcomings of the JCF, the grass is not that much greener on the other side of the fence.
The fact is that despite the woeful lack resources to pay for state-of-the-art equipment and training, the JCF's management and capability to investigate serious crime has come a long way and should be commended.
Despite some unnecessary and superficial criticism, do not underestimate the influence of the Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting. Although periodically derided he is probably the most effective minister of national security since Dr Peter Phillips. Too much focus has been on individuals and personalities, the process of modernising the JCF and reducing crime is about the collective effort of all stakeholders working together for the long haul.
Bunting should be commended for the legislation he has spearheaded to fight organised crime and for his initiative to merge the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) with the JCF Anti-corruption Branch. The island needs to concentrate its finite resources on dealing with Jamaica's most serious elements of organised crime. MOCA has quietly gone about its business and made a few significant arrests. My prediction is that MOCA will make an important impact on organised crime in 2015.
The combined efforts of many has achieved the progressive modernisation of the JCF, changes in operational planning, focused intelligence-led policing and improved investigations, all of which has culminated in a slow but continuous change in course.
However, the JCF can take little credit for the significant reduction in fatal shootings by members of the Force. The excellent work of Terrence Williams and his team at INDECOM has focused the minds of senior officers and rank and file police that to kill citizens of Jamaica without justification will no longer be tolerated and if committed, you will be held to account.
The work of INDECOM is arguably the most significant game-changer in years. There is no coincidence that in a year when a record number of police officers have been charged with murder and some have actually been found guilty that we have seen a massive reduction in the number of fatal shootings in 2014.
The track record of the JCF and its respect for human rights has been appalling and will be a priority for the Commissioner in 2015. Changing the attitude of rank and file officers to instill a sense that if you do wrong there will be no protection and no hiding place for blatant wrongdoers is an essential ingredient in continuing the reduction of fatal shootings.
Recently, I was privileged to be at a Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica meeting which was addressed by the Commissioner. Without the aid of notes he was able to speak articulately and passionately about where he sees the JCF now and his aspirations for the years ahead. It was clear from the body language and subsequent comments of my fellow PSOJ members that they were bowled over by Williams and his understanding of today's challenges as well as his clarity of vision for the future.
In 2015, I look forward to a better year for the JCF. Williams understands the importance of accountability and has in his first two-months in office sent a clear signal to his men and women of the JCF that if they shoot without justification or commit acts of corruption they will be held accountable, as will their line supervisors and managers.
I hope that in the year ahead, the public get to know Williams. He is a good man with immense support both here and with the international partners but he will have to do more to engage the Jamaican public. Indeed I have already seen signs that he understands the importance of that relationship; earlier this year, seeing him roll up his sleeves and assist with cleaning up police stations, his tour of downtown, Kingston and most recently his meeting with residents in Tivoli Gardens all demonstrate this fact. The more people get to know him the more they will trust him.
I would urge him to join the 'articulate minority' and get a Twitter account. Around the world, senior police officers and other ranks are using social media effectively to keep their citizens informed and their thoughts and ideas alive. Chief officers are sending messages about policy, current events and giving the public a means by which their citizens can communicate directly back with them.
My best wishes to Commissioner Williams and his men and women of the JCF. Never again must we return to a time when almost 2,000 murders a year were committed.
n Mark Shields, a former Deputy Commissioner in charge of crime and the is now the managing director of SHIELDS Crime & Security