Wednesday | March 21, 2001
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If they come for me in the morning...

Peter Espeut

IF THEY come for me in the morning, they'll be back for you in the evening". I am now in my tenth year as an opinion writer for this newspaper, and from the very first I have been writing about the use of excessive force by the police to "dispose of" their cases. Here is a sample. I have written against the Suppression of Crimes Act, and I have pointed out how the police do things in the ghettos that they would never do in middle class areas. I have shared the public outrage against the involvement of the police in the shearing of the locks of Rastafarians in the 1960s, against the use of tear gas at a cricket test match at Sabina Park, against the beating of the enthusiastic fan at the Santos vs. Chelsea football match at the National Stadium (I was there, and I saw Pele hug up the fan to prevent the policeman from raining further blows on his body), against the policeman shooting into the crowd at the function at the National Stadium to honour Nelson Mandela, against the police shooting into a public taxicab and a public minibus, against the police involvement in the death of Agana Barrett and Michael Gayle, against the involvement of the police in the Montego Bay Street People Scandal, and against other of their actions scandalously so numerous.

I have claimed that the police shoot too hastily, often killing persons who could provide important information. I have even called into question whether the police want information which might link politicians to guns or drugs, as an explanation for why they kill so readily. I have used the personal example of a member of my staff arrested by the police for a murder which occurred in Kingston on an evening when he and another staff member overnighted in Trelawny on company business, where his presence there could be proven; and where up until now, no investigating officer has come to us to confirm his alibi, yet he was locked up for six weeks without bail.

I have called the investigative rigour of the police into question, and at the time of the formation of the strike squad under Supt. Adams, I called rather for the formation of a highly trained investigative forensic team and an increase in the intelligence-gathering capability of the police. I have pointed out how difficult it seems to be for allegedly honest policemen to get sufficient evidence to charge allegedly corrupt policemen, and that the difference between the two seems to be blurred.

I have pointed out how it appears that the police are above the law, able to do anything they like with impunity. I have pointed at the fact that every police station I know has a rum bar in the rear, and I have called for the application of the breathalyzer to on-duty policemen driving police vehicles and carrying firearms. I have pointed out the double standards at work between how police suspects and other suspects are treated. I have argued that the police are public servants who act in our names, and that we must take responsibility for what they do. I have disagreed with the suggestion that it is only a small minority of policemen who bring the force into disrepute.

I have argued that the large number of questionable police killings suggests that there are a large number of police killers. I have even asked whether we live in a police state. I have pointed out the post-slavery origins of the Jamaica Constabulary, and at the beginning of the new millennium I called for the abolition of the Force and the establishment of a Police Service. I have called for an approach to governance which respects life, and human rights.

Bearing in mind how ex-President Pinochet of Chile was arrested in London for political murder during his term, I have wondered if, one day, Jamaican political leaders might face the same fate. I have pointed out that no political party in government has ever tried to force the police to obey the law, because they need the police to support their tenure. I have made references to a speech in Parliament in the 1960s which called on the police to "recite no beatitudes", and I now mention the speech which incites the police to send anyone who challenges them with a gun to the morgue. I must make it abundantly clear that I do not bear any personal grudge against the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

My mother's brother - my uncle - was the last Commissioner of Police in colonial Jamaica and the first in independent Jamaica, and I grew up loving and respecting the police. I don't know if it is because of how I look, but I personally have never had any negative experience with the police. As a Roman Catholic clergyman I have even been appointed Chaplain by Commissioner Forbes for a particular police station! But it appears that all my calls and observations over the years have fallen on deaf ears; the number and severity of questionable incidents involving the police seem to be increasing. The police force as presently constituted seems unable (or unwilling) to cleanse itself, and the governments of both parties seem to lack the political will or the testosterone to step in and make the necessary changes. And like their counterparts in Hitler's Germany, the Jamaican middle and upper classes have sat idly by for decades and said nothing, condoning the carnage by their loud silence, and by their financial contributions to political parties.

Since objective, ethical arguments have had little effect, let me try a totally subjective one: In the words of the American novelist James Baldwin, "If they come for me in the morning, they'll come for you in the evening". If you won't act to save others, then act to save yourself; for you may feel safe today, but under these conditions, no one is really safe.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is Executive Director of an environment and development NGO.

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