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Human rights, police, and 'Indecompetence'?

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Orville Taylor, Contributor

"Justice, truth be ours forever, Jamaica, land we love."

It is not coincidental or wishful thinking. This is a prayer and a statement which defines us as a nation, and not simply for our athletes to recite stoically after receiving gold medals. Our founding fathers and mothers of this little piece of rock did not accidentally put justice and truth together.

The acrimony between the Jamaica Police Federation, the Special Constabulary Force Association, the Police Officers' Association and Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) is unfortunate because their objectives have to be ostensibly the same. Deeply entrenched in police training manuals are catchphrases about not being influenced by prejudice, fear, or malice. Moreover, they enforce the law, the chief of which is the Constitution, which guarantees fundamental human rights. It is profoundly regrettable that the commissioner of The Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) is now embroiled in a festering conflict which, if not quickly resolved, will lead to the detriment of all.

Two weeks ago, a forum was hosted by JFJ, whose 13-year-old relationship with the constabulary has been perhaps wrongly described as 'adversarial'. Perched like a parrot among pigeons, INDECOM's commissioner, Terrence Williams, sat and carefully chose his words but still managed to reveal his frustration with the police over their lack of cooperation in his office's investigations.

Williams is no tomfool, and though he is accused of being drunk with power, that is where the maxim ends. It is unfortunate that he did not have 20/20 hindsight, because the bad blood between his office and the federation has now been exacerbated by his wrong decision to join this 'foul' fight in which the proverbial cockroach doesn't belong.

Nothing is inherently wrong with sitting in a press conference or similar forum with JFJ. However, there is the perception that the organisation is anti-police. Since we tend to use the fat of one's associates and fry them because birds of a feather flock together, Williams shouldn't flock with the JFJ, because although the police have temporarily backed off their clenched-fisted protests, they won't pussyfoot next time. As innocent as it might seem, the already incensed police cannot accept how 'INDECOM in it'.

human rights universal

Nonetheless, in theory, there should be nothing separating the JFJ and the police, and INDECOM for that matter. A clean and fair police force is as committed to justice as the judges, lawyers, legislators, and citizens at large. Human rights are universal and don't change like green lizards. Therefore, never mind the pronunciation, right is spelt one way. True, JFJ was founded in 1999 to "... bring about fundamental change in Jamaica's judicial, economic, social and political systems in order to improve the … lives of all Jamaicans."

Furthermore, JFJ believes: "Justice is the bedrock of any civilised and progressive society, and all Jamaicans must have equal access to fair and impartial treatment ... innocent until proven guilty in a court of law ... ." If any policeman or policewoman says there is anything wrong with that, he or she must pack his or her bags and go.

Nonetheless, it's the practice and perceived bias in application which the police are upset with. But, if the police are acting above board, they have nothing to fear from JFJ, INDECOM, Bureau of Special Investigations, or a few 'labba-mouth' do-gooders digging for the 'truth'.

So let us start there. First of all, this is a dangerous place to be a policeman, more so a policewoman. Although the numbers have decreased in the past year, there were periods when there was an average of one cop killed by criminals every month. The year 2008 was particularly alarming when more than 20 cops were murdered. For the period September to December, 15 policemen and one soldier perished at the hands of criminals. That four-month period was the bloodiest for cops in our history, as 10 members of the constabulary were murdered. A few years ago, I argued that there is little doubt that this is a 'police-ophobic' country.

attacks against cops

In that same year, a damning report from an international agency portrayed the constabulary as a set of rabid murderers who had killed 400 innocents. Nobody noted that, in this violent society, we have the highest rate of attacks against police personnel among democracies at peace in the hemisphere. Given that the majority of the murdered police were not killed while confronting criminals, but when they were off duty, it is clear that they have well-defined bullseyes which are invisible to some critics but glowing like neon lights to the criminals. It was also ignored that of the 276 police killings in 2007, only around 27 were in circumstances that were deemed warranting investigation, or simply put, 'controversial'. That is approximately 10 per cent; clearly not a majority. Be that as it may, the number of killings of civilians by the police has declined since then.

Doubtless, western Kingston has had more than its share of killings by police; the Reneto Adams-led incursion which claimed 27 lives, the 2005 and 2007 attempts to "apprehend fugitives", and, of course, the still-uninvestigated 73 and counting who became cannon fodder as Prezi Coke resisted arrest. This last set of killing of six of its residents, adding to a national body count of 20 plus, deserves more than a cursory interest.

Still, JFJ hasn't helped its own cause much because of its apparent selective approach to issues of the State treating its citizens unfairly. For example, the silence regarding the obvious dereliction of duty by the Government in allowing the two fishermen to languish in the custody of Mexican authorities is unforgivable. Thankfully, they arrived yesterday; however, more than two weeks after they were found, Junior Foreign Minister Arnaldo Brown was reportedly awaiting a "brief" while the poor fishermen had been wearing the same pair or none, since early February.

proving guilt

However, JFJ is not simply shooting in the dark and making false accusations. Only the biggest hypocrites will argue that all police accounts are perfectly consistent with procedure. Judges err, lawyers steal and lie, and justices of the peace give false references. So then, are police apologists implying police's infallibility? There is a hell of a difference between being innocent and being not guilty, and lack of evidence to prove guilt doesn't mean that the crime didn't take place. There are criminals, including murderers and rapists, in the police force. And yes, the fact that the names of all the alleged perpetrators are 'pronounced dead' despite the different spellings doesn't mean that they were engaging the police in the ways that the official reports say they did.

Ironically, the many disingenuous pro-constabulary advocates are quick to admit, "We know seh di bwoy a tief and a him kill di woman, but we no have no evidence." Let me be clear: some of the police killings are murder. Whatever might be the police report and however well written the account is and despite there being no evidence to challenge the official report, the scared witnesses, the victim, the police personnel, God, Jah and Allah know where the truth lies. So let's call a spade a heart.

However, there is a major distinction between saying that some are and the majority is. Nonetheless, if there is even one case where the police murder the suspect, it is one too many.

This country is too small to have the police, human-rights groups and INDECOM on different pages. If we are to be true to ourselves, those three need to meet with the public defender and other protectors of human rights, and ensure consensus. Thankfully, the dialogue has begun.

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.