Editorial | PCOA should do more
Its report of the shoddy state of lock-ups in western Jamaica and their poor management by the police again underlines the value of independent, civilian oversight of the constabulary, as well as the underuse of the Police Civilian Oversight Authority (PCOA).
But, even as the PCOA’s recent performance is noted, the development also raises questions of how seriously the PCOA takes itself, including whether it sees itself as subordinate to the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and that its critiques should not be too robust and direct, but be better delivered in muted tones from the shadows. Which, unfortunately, is the sense the public has of the PCOA, despite the occasional stirrings that remind of potential for encouraging transformative change in the police force. The PCOA has an opportunity to change that image and to cement its status as an independent peer reviewer.
Established in 2005 under the Police Civilian Oversight Authority Act, the PCOA has significant powers to evaluate the quality of the work done by the constabulary. Its specific functions under the law include:
• Monitoring the implementation of policy relating to the constabulary;
• Monitoring the police’s operation performance standards in the context of global policing benchmarks;
• Reviewing the police’s use of its financial and other resources;
• Inspecting the management and operations of police facilities, including police stations and lock-ups; and
• Performing other functions it feels necessary to promote the efficiency of the police force.
IS NOT AGGRESSIVE
That mandate, and the law, give the PCOA the authority to command internal operational performance, and other data, from the constabulary, which, if it were aggressive – which it is not – would probably bring complaints of invasiveness from police bosses.
However, even as the PCOA currently operates, it occasionally brings transparency to operational and systemic management faults within the constabulary, which officials would prefer not to be in the view of the public. The authority’s review of the state of lock-ups in the police’s Area One, which covers the parishes of Trelawny, St James, Hanover and Westmoreland, is a case in point.
The seven lock-ups the authority’s inspectors visited earlier this year were mostly in poor shape, very inadequately maintained, and, the inspectors concluded, badly managed. At one lock-up, they reported, only a single shower, of five, worked. But worse, “washbasins were being used as toilets, as the toilets were out of use”. Presumably, the toilets became out of order and were not repaired.
As bad as any weakness this reveals in the non-policing operational management of the constabulary may be, the more fundamental and far graver failure that it highlights is the dehumanising and a stripping of dignity and respect from every person who finds himself in those lock-ups, irrespective of innocence or guilt. In any event, even being guilty and jailed does not forfeit a prisoner’s humanity and attendant rights.
At another level, the inspection also discovered a pattern of poor record-keeping. The inspectors note that remand books, including information about prisoners in custody, and their property that are supposed to be in possession of the police, were spottily maintained, and in some cases, non-existent. These findings, and others, speak volumes about the management of the specific divisions, and perhaps of the entire Area One. They raise questions of leadership.
CONTRASTS WITH ANNUAL REPORT
What is significant for the PCOA about this report is its publication in the authority’s January-June newsletter, released this month. That contrasts with the authority’s annual reports, which are supposed to be tabled in Parliament and become public documents. The latest of these this newspaper continues to be able to find on Parliament’s website is for 2014-2015. It, however, was tabled in Parliament in late 2019 as Ministry Paper 60 of that year.
In that report, the PCOA said it reviewed 1,549 police case files covering murder, larceny and robbery. “The assessment revealed that there is a significant concern regarding the supervision and management of cases within the JCF,” the PCOA said. “At least 50 per cent of the cases (34 per cent little/no evidence of casework, 17 per cent slow progress of prescribed work) showed major deficiencies in relation to consistent and systematic supervision that would allow for the critical advance in the work delivered on these files.”
In the absence of updates of those findings, it is not known whether the JCF’s case file management has improved, but the performance at the Area One lock-ups suggests similar weaknesses in oversight.
It is not known why later reports seem not to have been tabled. It is possible that they have been prepared and not tabled, or that they have just not been uploaded on Parliament’s, or any other website. The PCOA itself does not have a website. It owns a Facebook page, populated mostly with pictorials of events involving its staff. There is little hard data pertaining to its work. That is an easy fix, which the authority should do.
And having noted the value of publishing the finding of its Area One inspection in its digital newsletter, the PCOA should be encouraged to go further. Nothing in law prevents it from disaggregating and sharing with the public, via the press and the Internet, the information it otherwise sends the minister. The police would likely embrace such a move, and would certainly benefit from the transparency. Additionally, the PCOA members should themselves emerge from the dark and give greater energy to the authority.