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Stabroek News

Crime and police brutality
published: Sunday | October 21, 2007

Don Robotham, Contributor

Philbert Thomas was among scores of Grants Pen residents who staged a protest in the area recently. Thomas said his son was murdered by the police who claimed that Andre Thomas was among a group of men who pointed a gun at them.- Norman Grindley/Deputy Chief Photographer

The issues of homicide and police brutality have been highlighted by the brutal murders in east Kingston and Waterhouse and the allegations of police murder in Grants Pen and Riversdale. How can we break this cycle?

This is not primarily about long term solutions. Anybody can dream up long term measures - to cut youth poverty by a massive social programme or to rebuild Kingston and Montego Bay from head to foot, and so on and so forth. What's the use of such suggestions when we all know we cannot finance them? The challenge is to find solutions which work in the short term which can be financed. We have to combine the long-term approaches with immediate short-term measures. The aim should be to get a breathing space from brutal homicides for three years or so to develop the economy, to seize the initiative and change the social context out of which crime and police brutality arise. In that breathing space we can take on the far more formidable challenge of dismantling the garrisons. The issue therefore is what effective steps can be taken now to win such a breathing space, with an effect by next week, when you read your next Sunday Gleaner.

The case of Grants Pen is particularly important. In January 2006, with the assistance of the American Chamber of Commerce, USAID, a number of private donors, the Member of Parliament, Delroy Chuck and the then PNP government, the Grants Pen Community Policing Initiative was launched. Some US$3.5 million (J$250 million) was spent on this project. An excellent centre was built and serious efforts were made to extend social services to the community. Yet in less than two years, this very same community has become the centre of a major police brutality case.


Grants Pen was supposed to be a model extended to other such communities throughout the island. This did not happen because it could not be financed. Instead, the security forces have been pursuing a 'hotspot' strategy. This is really a mini state of emergency applied for brief periods of time in limited areas. Do whatever you like, but, 'abeg', please don't utter the words 'state of emergency!'

This strategy is directly contrary to the community policing model. It utilises a show of military force to cow the gunmen back into their lair. It conducts a sweep in which hundreds of young men are taken off the streets, 'interrogated' (!) for days and then released back into the very communities from which they were seized. This is essentially psychological warfare backed by military muscle. It is a military and not a police tactic, borrowed from the Northern Ireland arsenal. The point of this approach is to show the gunmen who is the boss and how much they are at the mercy of the security forces in the final analysis.

In cold, calculating terms, such a strategy can be justified. It does temporarily cool down an overheated situation - the return of some semblance of normality to east Kingston is proof of that pudding. It does have the 'advantage' - hey, this is Jamaica! - of allowing the Government and the human rights community to maintain the fiction that there is no state of emergency. This greatly pleases our tourist interests and is good for everybody's conscience.

However, such hypocrisy has its limitations. A policy of several de facto mini states of emergency is deeply corrupting to the entire system of justice and governance. Moreover, it is a military tactic used against one's fellow citizens with only the barest pretence of legality. It cows not just the gunmen but the entire community of innocent people. The gunmen have learned how to take evasive action: they simply lay low until the 'occupying forces' leave and then return - the current Waterhouse upsurge is a classic example. Acts of brutality on a broad basis are inherent in this approach: it's called 'collateral damage' in 'the fog of war'. You can forget about human rights with this hotspot strategy. Most important of all, it is short-sighted and does not work. In fact it is an admission of defeat by our security forces and will have catastrophic long term consequences. What happens when the entire island becomes one huge 'hotspot?'

The chief weakness of the hotspot strategy is that it is a blunt instrument which intervenes after the fact - after the spot has become hot-when the murders have already been committed or just before. It resembles firefighting - rushing from hotspot to hotspot with an increasingly exhausted corps of soldiers and policemen. What we need is a short term strategy which is pre-emptive - one which intervenes to prevent a spot from becoming hot. This takes me back to my hobby horse - preventive detention.


The purpose of a selective preventive policy is to remove the leadership of violent gangs and drug rings from society. Note, I say, the dons - the rich and would-be rich. We are talking about only 50 people here! The problem is not intelligence. I believe the police know who such big and little wigs are. They just will never be able to convict them in a court of law. Therefore take them out of circulation and put them up in good accommodation with good food but high security, no cellphones, internet or visitation rights for at least a year, negotiable up or down. No vengeance, no hanging, no cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment. We must keep our heads and not sacrifice our humanity especially when dealing with serious murderers. The concerns of the human rights community are not trivial. On the contrary, human rights abuses by state and non-state actors in Jamaica must be taken very seriously. At the same time, our astronomically high murder rate must also be addressed.

The issue therefore boils down to this: is it possible to have a preventive detention policy which respects human rights? Is it possible to have 'hard policing' and human rights at one and the same time? I have always maintained that we can, up to a point. I hope that now we have a JLP government, one objection to this approach - that it will be a PNP dagger directed at the JLP - no longer exists. Let a JLP government implement preventive detention. Who cares as long as it is done?

Another objection is that this is a departure from the British liberal tradition of the rule of law. Under the Terrorism Act of 2006, the British police can hold a suspect in 'pre-charge detention' for 28 days. In July 2007, the Home Secretary announced she would seek an extension to two months. On Tuesday, October 9, 2007, Sir Ian Blair, Britain's top policeman, demanded an extension to 90 days. In addition there is a whole apparatus of 'control orders' in Britain. A rights-governed preventive detention policy is therefore clearly possible, under certain conditions.

post hoc

First we must frankly admit that preventive detention is a serious incursion against the human rights of those detained without trial. Second, we need to partition off a part of the senior judiciary to specialise in preventive detention orders. To this special section of the judiciary we should add well-known lawyers and human rights activists who would play a crucial operational role before abuses occur. One great flaw in our current human rights movement is that it operates post hoc. The task before us is to get our human rights community into pre-emptive mode in an institutional framework-to operate ante hoc. This institutionalised judicial-citizen supervision must not be limited to reviewing cases of alleged abuse, after the horse has bolted. It must have operational management of the total process and must have the power to order instant release of persons wrongfully detained and the transfer of offending security personnel.

Third, a military-police-civilian grouping with special training and personality characteristics must be selected to organise and execute detention orders. A preventive detention policy is not about indiscriminate vengeful brute force. On the contrary it requires a scalpel rather than a blunt instrument and is intelligence driven. Personnel who understand this more subtle strategy would be essential. The brute force, scatter-shot, bull-in-a-china shop approach is one of the greatest obstacles to effectively fighting crime and reducing police brutality.

A rights-governed preventive detention policy is no panacea. It should be combined with community policing and social interventions. It is certainly subject to abuse, as is any policy. It can be skewed socially to attack inner-city youth. Human rights activists also fear that they will be co-opted and their integrity compromised. These are real dangers. But that is precisely why the human rights activists have to step up to the plate and get directly involved in security at the operational level. There are no risk-free options. Hitting the talk shows in teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing mode may be chicken soup for the soul, but does not advance us one jot or tittle in either reducing crime or police brutality.

Is it possible to have a preventive detention policy which respects human rights? Is it possible to have 'hard policing' and human rights at one and the same time? I have always maintained that we can], up to a point. I hope that now we have a JLP government, one objection to this approach - that it will be a PNP dagger directed at the JLP - no longer exists. Let a JLP government implement preventive detention. Who cares as long as it is done?

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