Editorial | Holding Maj Gen Anderson accountable
Jamaica’s police chief, Major General Antony Anderson, last week mounted a stout defence of the commitment of his officers and of the professionalism with which they go about their jobs
“I see officers extending themselves, not only in terms of their work, but are extending themselves financially to support some of the activities and operations that we do,” Major General Anderson told a virtual audience at a function hosted by the Police Civilian Oversight Authority (PCOA). “That is not an acceptable way of operating, but I commend the officers who actually do that.”
So, too, does this newspaper. Major General Anderson, however, missed the point. For although Otarah Byfield did not say so, fundamentally, it is his stewardship that was under question – more so than the identified failures, or incompetence, of his subordinates. The buck stops with the man at the top.
Few Jamaicans have probably heard of Ms Byfield. She is the executive director of the PCOA, an independent body whose role, as explained by the national security ministry, is to “ensure accountability, adherence to policy guidelines and observance of proper policing standards by the police force”. So, the PCOA, which is a creature of statute, monitors the operations of the constabulary, including conducting audits of police stations, and reports its observations to the police chief and/or the minister.
Clearly, Ms Byfield is not impressed with what her agency has been discovering. In announcing the winners of an essay writing competition on how to transform the constabulary, she, as was reported by the Jamaica Observer, lamented the lack of accountability by police officers and called for “strict adherence to basic policing processes and procedures that require very little money and resources”.
“Some people call it low-hanging fruits,” she said.
Added Ms Byfield: “If you do not sign to receiving a weapon when beginning your duties, how do you justify discharging that weapon in public, where the circumstances so require? The firearm register is your book of evidence. Does that take a lot of resources?
“If you don’t document a complaint or a statement from a citizen, how can you properly investigate something you have no record of and solve a crime? If you do not treat citizens with respect, how can you reasonably expect them to give you information to solve a crime?
“If you do not accurately record information about persons in custody, how can you swiftly introduce them to the judicial system? If officers do not conduct the required inspections at stations, how will you know about the issues at the station to correct them?”
Put another way, failure to do these seemingly simple things – Ms Byfield’s low-hanging fruits – helps to create, and sustain, an environment in which corruption festers and trust in the institution is eroded. Indeed, two years ago, a Vanderbilt University-coordinated survey on people’s attitude to democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean found that only 38.8 per cent of Jamaicans trusted the police, a decline of nearly 10 percentage points from seven years earlier. It is unlikely that there will be any substantial improvement in these attitudes in the pending survey.
In 2010 , a strategic review of the constabulary concluded, among other things, “that internal accountability within the JCF is weak”. Which, essentially, is the same conclusion Ms Byfield reached last week, more than a decade later. That, on the face of it, does not say a lot for the much-talked-about plans and programmes to transform the Jamaica Constabulary Force, which so exercised the minds of the essay writers in the PCOA competition. And here is where Ms Byfield’s observations are relevant to Major General Anderson.
A former chief of staff of the Jamaica Defence Force, Major General Anderson has been the police commissioner for three years and eight months. We recognise that being head of a constabulary in Jamaica, with its high levels of crime and homicide rate of over 46 per 100,000, is no cake walk. Yet, three, going on four years, is not a short time. It is a sufficient period within which to get some critical things done, especially catching the “low-hanging fruits”.
Signing for weapons, documenting complaints and registering the people who are in lock-ups are not only the basics of accountability, but the building blocks of good policing – and the starting point for effective investigations. What do you investigate if there is no record with which to start?
If these things were not happening when Major General Anderson arrived on the job, he should have insisted that they be done, and hold to account the people who were tasked with ensuring that they are done. That, of course, would require that he knows that these were shortcomings. Insofar that Ms Byfield’s observations are true, Major General Anderson cannot escape the indictment of her critique. For they expose not only the men and women who fail to sign logs or appropriately record complaints and statements, but also those who do not hold them to account. If the smaller things are not being done, how can the constabulary be trusted with the larger, more complex tasks. In the event, the thing that smells flows uphill.
So, police officers bringing computers from their homes to do their jobs, or fix the force’s vehicles or “do all sorts of things” is quite commendable and worthy of praise. We, however, would prefer if they did the basics of the job, whose shortcomings so concerned Ms Byfield. And they should be held to account if they do not. That is the foundation of an effective police force with the capacity to fight crime.