Our police are not supermen
By Keith Noel
SOME YEARS ago, I be-friended a teacher who was a member of the Jamaica Defence Force reserve. He was a jovial young man, disciplined but quite warm and fun loving. A year or so later, when the One Order and Clansman gangs vied for control of Spanish Town, in an effort to quell the widespread violence and restore some measure of normality, a state of emergency was declared.
During this period, I observed my young friend grow hardened. I later understood that one of the reasons for this was an incident that occurred when his unit was patrolling on foot and came upon some gang members. In a flash, one of them pointed a pistol at him and shot him at point-blank range. Luckily, the bullet hit a metal container that he had on his person and was deflected. So he survived to tell the tale.
"Dem criminal bway deh fi dead!" became his credo. Although I sympathised with his initial reaction, I reasoned with him that his training and the discipline it brought should override those thoughts. He respectfully demurred.
Segue to a conversation I had some time ago with a policeman who spoke bitterly about the arrogance of the brazen gunman who had walked into a police station and gunned down a senior officer. Of most concern, however, was the annoyance he expressed at the fact that there was some outcry when this gunman was cornered in Tivoli Gardens some time later and, instead of being brought before the courts, was shot dead.
A senior superintendent once averred that a man who used an unlicensed firearm in the commission of a criminal offence and who subsequently pointed that firearm at the police had, by that act, declared war on law-abiding citizenry. His reasoning was that guns were made to kill, and if a criminal armed himself with a gun he intended to use it - he would kill someone. The police, being in the forefront of the fight against these criminals were, as a result, a major target.
Police need more training
All of this perturbed me and I, like so many other liberal citizens, felt that our police needed more training in the handling of gun-toting criminals. Testing needed to be done to ensure that only men and women with a certain psychological make-up would be armed by the state and put on the streets.
It was only when, some years later, I was held up at gunpoint and, at one point during the ordeal, it seemed as if I was going to be shot, that I had an inkling of how people in the security forces sometimes feel. And my assailant, unlike that of my young friend, had not pulled the trigger. I do not know if the gun was even loaded!
Yet, if a fortnight later I had come across that assailant - or another in the act of committing a similar crime - and I had had the opportunity to either apprehend him, turn him over to the police and ensure he was punished in the approved way or, on the other hand, to do grievous bodily harm to that criminal, I regret to say I would have opted for the latter.
Although the counsel and prayers of the people at the Church of St Mary the Virgin have brought me to a more sane and civilised position, I still respond cautiously to the brouhaha about police killings.
Looking death in the eye is not something human beings handle well. In wartime 'normal' people become potential perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Remember the United States (US) soldiers in MI Lai? Or the US soldier who recently went berserk in Afghanistan? There are myriad examples.
So we cannot simply expect our police to be a superior kind of human being. If we want those who are on the front line facing armed gunmen to respond in the way we think they should, we must put certain things in place. Any policeman who has put his life on the line more than once should be taken off the front line and given other duty while he receives the kind of psychological support which would prevent him from becoming bitter and hardened.
And that is just for starters!
Keith Noel is an educator. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org