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Taking the first step

Published:Friday | March 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM

by Peter Espeut

THREE WEEKS ago, I invited Police Federation Chairman Constable Franz Morrison to take the first step and admit that - just maybe - the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) might have a problem with how it uses deadly force to combat crime ('We have a problem', March 9). The first step - admitting that there is a problem - is essential to solving that problem. Deny that there is a problem, and the problem remains - and may intensify.

Constable Morrison has not taken up my challenge, but that same day (March 9), Police Commissioner Owen Ellington made the following statement: "The number of reported incidents involving use of force by members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the Island Special Constabulary Force is unnecessarily high and oftentimes unwarranted." My congratulations to Commissioner Ellington for taking the first step.

Police defend themselves

The Gleaner of March 10 reports that: "According to Ellington, checks have revealed that when these controversial or unnecessary shootings occur, the sub-officer of the senior member 'has often submitted statements or reports that seek to remove responsibility from them'."

I think we have turned a corner. This frank admission by the police commissioner that sometimes the police use excessive force to the point of unnecessarily deadly force, and that senior officers construct reports that seek to cover this up, is a basis on which to move forward. Previous denials by police commissioners that in no case was there excessive force were simply not credible, and further served to discredit the police in the eyes of the public, who want, in the words of our national anthem: 'Justice, truth be ours forever'.

Last Tuesday in Parliament, National Security Minister Peter Bunting said that the 56 persons killed by police officers since the start of this year is "intolerable". He said, "We agree that this figure is much too high and must be reduced further." He called for police, even when engaged in shoot-outs, to make every effort to preserve the lives of suspects in crimes. My congratulations to Minister Bunting for taking the first step.

I think we may have turned a corner. During the long tenure of 'Star Boy' Knight as national security minister, despite the dozens of killings by the police - including in his own constituency - Minister Knight never took the first step. And during the tenure of National Security Minister Peter Phillips, despite the dozens of killings by the police, Minister Phillips never took the first step. These gentlemen never admitted publicly that Jamaica had a problem with police killings, despite our world-record performances every year.

Now that both Commissioner Ellington and Minister Bunting have taken the first step, gentlemen, there are several more steps to go.

Worrying silence

What has been the response of the Police Federation to the first steps taken by the commissioner and the minister? So far, a stony silence, which is worrying. On March 20, The Gleaner reported that Public Defender Earl Witter said he had written to the Police Federation seeking a response to comments made by Commissioner Ellington about the use of force by the police. When asked how he would view a non-response from the federation, Witter replied: "It would tend to support the view that the federation is minded to support its members in whatever they do, and are not as determined as the commissioner to work at a change in regard to the use of force and firearm policy of the constabulary."

Organisations like the Jamaica Teachers' Association and the Police Federation are not professional bodies, setting standards for their members, and defending the quality of their profession. They are unions pure and simple, vigorously defending their members whenever they are charged with misconduct, regardless of the circumstances. I have no reason to believe that the Police Federation will publicly commit itself and its members to strictly adhere to the official 'Use of Force Policy'. Both Commissioner Ellington and Minister Bunting will have to deal with the negative culture of death within the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

Again, I call upon Police Federation Chairman Constable Franz Morrison to take the first step and admit that, just maybe, the JCF might have a problem with how it uses deadly force to combat crime.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Send comments to columns@gleanerjm.com.