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Editorial | What’s the substance of police reform?

Published:Thursday | June 13, 2019 | 12:00 AM

If Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ assessment is accurate, the Jamaican public is in the same boat as its police force. The constabulary is in the throes of transformation. It is just that neither the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) nor the society at large may be aware of it.

In which event the process is flawed, suggesting an absence, or failure, of efforts to build consensus around the project, with the danger that any change implemented now could be without deep or lasting value to the society. Which, potentially, is catastrophic, making any future effort to seriously overhaul the constabulary even more difficult, if not impossible.

It is not in doubt that Jamaica’s police force operates in a problematic environment and has a difficult job, which it doesn’t do well. Each year, there are more than 1,000 murders in the island. Our homicide rate, in recent years, has fluctuated between 45 and over 60 per 100,000. The police clear up not more than half of those killings, which don’t necessarily mean that they have made arrests, and charged persons or brought them to trial. More likely, they have ‘identified’ someone, usually a gang, which may be accused of multiple killings. Murder, of course, isn’t the only crime with which the constabulary has to contend and for which its skills are wanting.

It is generally agreed that the circumstance of its creation, as a colonial, paramilitary force, concerned less with policing by consent than enforcing a presumed natural order, played a major part in creating the constabulary’s jackbooted culture. The weaknesses, though, have been exacerbated by policy failures and/or inaction by policymakers that facilitated a deepening of corruption and the creation of an organisation that’s deeply resistant, if not impervious, to change.

Indeed, over the last quarter-century, several eminent individuals and groups, domestic and international, have produced myriad reports for reforming the JCF. Their implementation has, at best, been partial or piecemeal. Yet, crime, estimated to cost the country five to seven per cent of output annually, saps the economy and induces fear that erodes social relations.

That is why this newspaper, like most Jamaicans, has welcomed every new declaration by the Government of its intention to reforming the police force, including this one which Prime Minister Holness told last week’s annual conference of the Police Federation, the constabulary’s union, is under way.

“Already, the JCF is changing before your very eyes,” Mr Holness told police officers. “You may not see, you may not even believe it, but your organisation is changing to become what we all want it to be – a force for good.”

We hope that is indeed the case, although we’d expect that the members of the constabulary would be the first to experience, and therefore be aware of, changes in the organisation. This, newspaper, of course, doesn’t discount the plan to retrench the discrete Mobile Reserve and replace it with a highly trained and accountable rapid-response unit. Indeed, we welcome, as Mr Holness promised, the plan to give the police “new tools, techniques and technologies”.

compromised foundation

We are wary, however, of the possibility of building a new structure on a compromised foundation. Moreover, the reformed police force should be one in which there is broad consensus, in which event it can’t be by stealth or imperious imposition. It wouldn’t be expected that many of the old structures, and a good portion of its personnel, survive the transformation. In other words, there should be a national conversation about the new police force, involving the constabulary itself, the Government, Opposition and civil society.

This process, given what we perceive to be the depth and breadth of the task, would be expected to start with more than an ephemeral vision of the police force by the authorities, but with a substantive outline, by its chief, of the constabulary he expects to lead and what will be required to make it work. “Suites of audits into various aspects of the force”, to decide what is to be done, won’t cut it.