No eyes on police, army - After years of promises, not one body camera in action
More than half a decade after moves were made to equip personnel with body cameras to guard against unprofessional conduct and extrajudicial killings, national security and defence officials have confirmed that neither the police nor the army has any of the surveillance equipment currently deployed.
The revelation comes in the wake of the controversial killing of Susan Bogle, a disabled woman, in an alleged running gun battle between soldiers and armed men in August Town, eastern St Andrew, last week.
The fatal shooting has sparked national outrage and reignited a call from several quarters for greater accountability from the security forces, forcing even Prime Minister Andrew Holness to make it a matter of priority when he commenced his Jamaica House press conference on Sunday evening.
Meanwhile, Bogle’s son, Omari Stephens, has raised concerns about the circumstances of her killing, suggesting that there was no indication that his mother was slain in a crossfire.
Holness conceded that he was “very concerned” about rising complaints of unprofessional and criminal conduct to the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), the watchdog with oversight over on-duty police and military personnel. There have been at least 18 reports against the JDF to INDECOM up to May, more than for the entire 2019.
The prime minister, however, defended the JDF’s reputation of governance and procedure, rejecting suggestions that the army lacked transparency.
The matter of body cams re-emerged after INDECOM revealed that the absence of surveillance equipment on military combatants posed a challenge to its probe into Bogle’s killing.
JDF Chief of Defence Staff, Lieutenant General Rocky Meade, reported Sunday evening that the army was currently in the process of testing cameras to be rolled out. Meade did not offer a hard timeline on the procurement of body cams or disclose the quantity projected for deployment by the JDF.
“We had a few cameras, but they weren’t sufficient enough to stand up to the normal activities of the troops, and we got a different set this year that are currently undergoing testing, so we do not have wide-scale deployment of cameras at the moment, but we are going through the process that would allow us to have cameras,” Meade said.
Four soldiers have been taken off front-line duty and their weapons collected for ballistics testing by INDECOM.
Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang told The Gleaner on Sunday night that the Jamaica Constabulary Force has no body cameras currently deployed.
Chang attributed non-deployment to the procurement of faulty equipment and said that the Government intended to purchase a large inventory of cameras.
“What we had was inappropriate because they were taking the police’s face and had other issues, and, of course, the poor officers would be charged with trying to mislead the public. We are in the process of identifying the appropriate instrument and reordering because we need a large amount of cameras, - about 1,200 for starters - but we will need more than that,” Chang said.
“You will realise that the commissioner wears a different-style uniform in recent times because the original uniform design just couldn’t accommodate the cameras.”
However, although Chang vowed that the ministry would begin the procurement of body cameras this financial year, Holness was non-committal to an immediate investment in a mass outlay, citing budgetary constraints.
COVID-19 restrictions have placed the Holness administration in a fiscal bind, with the economy estimated to shrink by up to 14 per cent in the June quarter and up to six per cent for fiscal year 2020-2021.
Jamaica has seriously pursued the acquisition and build-out of body cameras throughout the constabulary since at least 2014, but the process was delayed and derailed because of procurement and bureaucracy snafus, but some critics have suggested a lack of will from policymakers and pushback from security personnel resistant to oversight.
In 2016, the JCF received more than 120 body cameras, valued approximately US$400,000, through funding from the US Embassy in Jamaica.
Bogle was shot multiple times as she lay in her bed. It is alleged that a gunman was chased by soldiers into her yard.
During a walk-through of Bogle’s Bryce Hill Road yard on Sunday afternoon alongside Chang and Commissioner of Police Antony Anderson, Stephens questioned the theory of a crossfire.
“What is really bothering me is that there is no other entry point of bullet into the house. They had to pull the door and see her lying on the bed and shoot multiple times. The only bullet holes are on the wall. If you are running down a man, then that’s fine because this is a trouble yard, but the multiple shots is bothering me,” Stephens told The Gleaner.
An unidentified soldier who was on the scene and heard Stephens’ queries voiced sotto-voce agreement about the logic of the arguments. “The son makes some good points,” the soldier said to other members of the JDF.
However, Chang discounted preliminary conclusions until a thorough investigation has been completed.
“The social conditions in the big yard are very challenging, and it is one of the things we have articulated in terms of how do we fix these areas.
“In terms of what is happening inside, I will let the forensic investigators follow through because first impression is never necessarily what it is. We will let INDECOM do a proper report, and we will see what comes out of that,” the national security minister said.