Mon | Dec 18, 2017

MoBay police on beat duty

Published:Sunday | August 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Orville Taylor

Oh, come on! Thirty deaths of prisoners in the custody of the State in a nine-year period is too high. In fact, let me make it clear: The death of even one person while being housed by cops is too many, because every prisoner who dies under the control of the State is someone's son, brother, uncle, cousin, nephew, father, lover or, in the present era 'partner'. And Mario Deane was smaddy pickney. Deane's case is remarkable because of the press that it has been given and the relatively minor offence for which he had been initially detained.

Held with a marijuana spliff, an offence which attracts a massive and burdensome fine of J$100, Deane was taken into police custody. Now, inasmuch as the police have discretion, the law gives them the right to arrest and lock up anyone, if he cannot satisfy the requirements for bail. Indeed, there is one famous prisoner who was originally held with a small quantity of weed, but during his period of detention the police investigated and charged him for a major horrendous crime.

Though unsubstantiated, it is suspected that the celebrity couldn't make bail, because the arresting officer couldn't determine which of his multiple complexions should be recorded. Still, the law is on the books, and as a prominent resident magistrate declared, she will prosecute to the full extent anyone who appears before her for such transgressions. It is up to Parliament to make the move to decriminalise.

Arrest and detention

Nonetheless, while the possession of a 'tuups' of marijuana is a low-level violation, the police have the right and responsibility to use appropriate means to take control of recalcitrant persons who are being arrested. Resisting is a bad idea, even when the cop is booking you for a traffic offence. While in detention, if it is deemed justifiable for the prisoner to be placed in a cell, force legally can be used to subdue him. The baton is not simply a prop or phallic symbol. It can be used for cops to put wood to skin.

However, insolence, or 'facetiness', is not justification for Officer Dibble to even put a finger on the prisoner or lock up someone. Moreover, where force is used, it should cease as soon as the police have control of the prisoner. It must be unequivocally stated here that the police at the Barnett Street station, where Deane suffered injuries leading to his death, have categorically denied beating him, and no evidence, so far, connects them to the assault.

Deane's tragedy is reportedly the result of civilian prisoners inflicting corporal punishment. This contradicts earlier reports that he fell off a bunk, unless the assailants beat him on it and pushed him off afterwards. Three men, two mentally ill and the other a deaf-mute, were charged. At trial, the testimony was that he was indeed beaten over the use of the bunk and stabbed, and the attack continued for half an hour. Assuming that it is true, this does not absolve the police.

There is a statutory, common-law and moral obligation to keep a prisoner safe, secure and in good health. It is irrelevant whether he is detained for herb or convicted of murder. Being unaware of a sustained and eventually fatal assault by other prisoners is unacceptable. Commissioner of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), Terrence Williams, has rightly been suggesting that cameras be put in strategic places to monitor lock-ups. It doesn't matter how far, dark or remote the cells are from the guardroom; the police on duty must have 24-hour vigilance, because crimes do take place in cells. If there were no sentries posted continually or continuously, the police were derelict in their responsibilities.

In Daytona Beach, Florida, apart from the commonplace dashboard cameras, body cameras have become standard. Despite initial resistance, they have not only kept the police in line, but have saved them from false or misconceived accusations, including one where a man was shot inside his bedroom. This individual was popularly believed to have been executed in his bed (as many Jamaican accounts are). However, the camera footage revealed that he had a large sharp knife at the throat of his girlfriend and was threatening to kill her. The cameras retail for around US$950, a mere fraction of the cost of a trial.

Recent American victims

But speaking of the United States: There have been several cases of American police killing civilians while in custody or during arrests. Noteworthy is the July 2014 homicide of Eric Garner by five New York Police Department officers. Garner lay on the ground squeaking, eight times, "I can't breathe," before finally dying from a neckhold. In 2013, the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board, that state's equivalent of INDECOM, received 233 complaints concerning chokeholds among the 5,410 coming to its attention. All over the American press is the shooting death of 18-year-old college-bound Michael Brown, by police in Ferguson County, Missouri. Eyewitnesses report that Brown and another friend were (jay)walking in the middle of the street when a policeman grabbed him through the patrol car window. Pulling free after being shot, he ran off, turned and faced the officers with his arms above his head and said, "I'm unarmed!" The response came from the service pistol as around seven rounds were pumped in the body of the youth, killing him.

Little has been done to provide the American public with information. The police are still on active duty, and the community, as the Jamaicans did at Barnett Street, protested. Here, our security minister and Police High Command responded with clear instructions as to how to handle minor offences. The police and INDECOM have initiated investigations and six cops have been interdicted; more swiftness and openness than in Uncle Sam.

Ironically, our constabulary, since its repeal in 1994, has been purging itself of the influence of the 1974 Suppression of Crime Act, a law under which they trampled on the Constitution. Yet the US has been allowing more police to be trained by human-rights-respecting Israelis. This has led to police killings of unarmed Americans increasing by 500 per cent since the mid-2000s. In Missouri, tear gas was being used wantonly, including against the state senator. More than 45 peaceful protesters have been arrested, including two journalists, who were in McDonald's charging their phones. Despite several requests, police officers have refused to disclose standard information such as names and badge numbers. In Jamrock, the people can speak out and the press is carrying the stories.

This is still a wonderful democracy in which we can investigate and prosecute the guilty, whether civilian or police.

E Pluribus Unum; Out of Many, One People.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.