There appears to be a huge gulf between the policies and regulations regarding when and how to use deadly force espoused by Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington and the actions of his officers as they carry out their duties. There was even talk about introducing other means of restraining suspects, with shooting being a last-resort response.
But several recent deaths at the hands of the police appear to be fuelling a growing fear and distrust of the very people who are sworn to serve and protect the public. It is as if the 'shoot-then-ask-questions-after' culture has been revived in the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
In the last week or so, police killings have shattered the peace in a Westmoreland community, in neighbourhoods in Kingston, St Andrew, and a Clarendon village. Of interest is the fact that most of these killings have taken place in inner-city or less-affluent communities. The reports all have an eerie familiarity about them in that the police are usually greeted by gunfire, and on returning the fire, someone is found suffering from gunshot wounds, and a weapon is recovered, often with serial number erased. Loved ones and alleged eyewitnesses consistently dispute these reports, alleging, instead, death in cold blood by masked men. And the people all say they want just one thing: justice.
Deficiencies in police investigations are starkly highlighted in the courts from time to time. The result is that scores of cases drag on for years or result in acquittals because they were not properly investigated. And the justice system rarely delivers the appropriate punishment. In the case of police officers, their usual punishment is to be taken off front-line duty. Those who make it to court are mostly absolved of criminal liability because of inadequate evidence.
So where will the people get their justice? The one glimmer of hope appears to lie in the Independent Commission of Investigations, the agency tasked with investigating police-caused deaths. While the police have failed to live up to the public's expectations, there are indications that there is growing respect for the work of INDECOM. We know that this is small comfort for the grieving families who feel they have been let down by the agents of the State and often get no answers or compensation.
We acknowledge that policing in the 21st century is not easy because there are well-armed, brazen criminals who are not afraid to challenge the police. Gun crime is at an intolerably high level in this country. There are many illegal guns out there, so the police are expected to be very cautious and be on their guard at all times. Officers will make split-second judgement, in tense moments; but despite this, there must be legal justification for using deadly force. And using deadly force against an unarmed person amounts to murder.
Mistrust of the police runs deep in many communities. And when there are police shootings, there is less cooperation and civility between the police and residents. The events of recent weeks will, arguably, set back any gains made in community policy and will require a great effort to repair the breach in future.
The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.