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EDITORIAL - Responding to police homicides

Published:Wednesday | February 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mr Owen Ellington already confronts a large platter of difficult issues, which will only be heaped upon, once his salary concerns are resolved and he is officially confirmed as commissioner of police.

Among the matters he has to attend to is the one raised by Mr Earl Witter, the public defender, when he last week addressed members of the Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI), the arm of the constabulary that probes controversial shootings by the police.

Mr Witter is concerned that there are too many of these shooting. We agree.

It is true, as Mr Raymond Wilson - the chairman of the Police Federation - observed, that Jamaica's police officers work in very difficult circumstances and are often engaged by criminals with guns. Indeed, 11 police officers were murdered in 2009, although all of them did not die in the line of duty and some may have been killed for reasons unrelated to their jobs.

But the difficult environment in which they work, notwithstanding, it is difficult for us to comprehend a constabulary in a country the size and population of Jamaica killing 245 citizens - as was the case last year. This was an increase of approximately 11 per cent, perpetuating an upward trend in police homicides after a period of decline in the 1990s and during the middle years of the past decade. Curiously, this is happening at a time when police officers are supposed to have been undergoing their most intensive training in firearm use and assessment, and when accountability regimes have, ostensibly, been enhanced.

The homicide data suggests the need for a review of existing programmes to determine why the technical skills and rules of engagement learnt on the ranges and briefing sessions do not translate to changed behaviour on the streets. For while we agree with Mr Witter that a "greater regard" by the police "for the rules of engagement can lead to a reduction in the incidence of fatalities", it is not enough to just call for it.

Mr Ellington, in this regard, will have to proceed on several fronts.

First, he has to ensure that the firearm training received by police officers is of the highest quality - which we do not doubt it to be. He also has to ensure that police officers are using not only the best, but the most appropriate equipment for the job.

Robust programme

It is important, too, that the constabulary enforces, if such a system is not now in place, a robust programme of weeding out those who are psychologically unfit for membership in the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

Additionally, the BSI must continue, and intensify, its recent initiative of providing periodic public updates on cases it is investigating. But this must not be for sham. The public expectation is that the bureau will be professional in its work that, where warranted, police officers who engage in extrajudicial killings will be charged and face the courts.

Finally, it is urgent that the promised legislation for the new, independent and properly resourced body to probe misbehaviour by the police be passed and the system implemented. Mr Witter can also help by his office energetically proceeding with the cases it is now investigating.

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