Columns

So you want Commish Ellington's head on a platter?

Keith GARDNER

Monday, December 09, 2013    

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THE incumbent head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), Commissioner Owen Ellington is arguably the finest commissioner in the region. This is so for several reasons:

1. The nature and scope of crime: The complexity of crime in Jamaica, which rests on a continuum of highly organised players involved in the narco-gun trade, murder for hire, and lottery scam, to the less-organised itinerant robbers and petty thieves are more prevalent in Jamaica than possibly all the countries in the Caribbean Commonwealth combined.

2. The size of the Jamaica Constabulary, its auxiliaries and civilian staff present special administrative challenges given their spread and geographical locations and the conditions under which many operate.

3. Management of resources: There has been and continues to be severe constraints in the budgetary allocations for the acquisition and maintenance of critical real and fixed assets such as police stations, service vehicles, office equipment, and stationery.

4. Pressure created by a broken justice system: There is an inadequate number of judges at all levels. Physical facilities such as chambers, support staff and research materials all subscribe to an unacceptably high caseload, lengthy delays on dispensing justice, which often result in acquittal and vigilantism.

Commissioner Ellington came to office at a time when the murder rate was at its highest level in the history of Jamaica and the country perched at the unenviable position as being the murder capital of the world.

Prior to his arrival, successive ministers with security responsibilities seemed oblivious to matters critical to the security policy processes. One minister even admitted on national television that he was ignorant of the dichotomy between the administrative and operational responsibilities; the first which resides by law in the office of the minister, and the other to the commissioner who is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the Force.

Indeed, after Minister Phillips, all the ministers of national security appear to be tinkering, some more clueless than others. One such minister, when asked about his plans for managing crime, responded on public television "check me back in six months", another is continuously asking for divine intervention, which is reminiscent of the story of a group of saints gathered in a dark room praying to the father to send light from heaven when all that was necessary to illuminate the room was for one of them to reach up and flip the electric light switch.

Commissioner Ellington has demonstrated the capacity to critically analyse the complex security challenges facing Jamaica and has, on numerous occasions, been subject to financial constraints, and concomitant shortages in manpower and equipment to address the issue that is of greatest concern to Jamaica and its diaspora -- crime.

Under Commissioner Ellington more administrative guidelines have been formulated and implemented than perhaps those formulated collectively by his four most immediate predecessors. Of course, all is not well, allegations of extrajudicial killings, excessive use of lethal and non-lethal force, and police corruption continue to be articulated by civil society. These are fundamental human rights concerns which must be addressed and no Administration can rest in splendid isolation of these issues. It cannot, therefore, be fair to hold the commissioner of police, vicariously or otherwise, responsible for the escalating crime rate given his continued efforts to contain crime and corruption at every level.

After 40 years of policing and serving commissioners from Jack Middleton to Owen Ellington (13) and ministers of national security (13) from Noel Silvera to Peter Bunting, it is my opinion that Owen Ellington is arguably the most qualified, academically and professionally, and the most outstanding, possibly the best of our post-colonial commissioners of police.

It is also my firm opinion, based on performance, that Dr Peter Phillips and K D Knight stand among the best ministers of national security since independence. This is not based merely on their performance as security ministers per se, but also on their contribution to legal reforms, which is perhaps the greatest tool of social re-engineering.

Many may not agree with my assessment, relying for example on the repressive effects of the Suppression of Crime (Special Provisions) Act, which lasted between 1974 and 1994 and which was retained by both political parties over the two decades. At the time of its repeal, it had reached "childbearing age, and a whole generation of Jamaicans grew up without enjoying many of the basic human rights guaranteed to them by our constitution".

Many would also argue that the scope of human rights abuse in Jamaica in the post-Independence era can be largely attributed to the retention of this oppressive Act, as a whole generation of police officers did not appreciate the importance of obtaining warrants of arrest and search, which are fundamental to the preservation of human rights and dignity.

Government responsibility

Governments exist to provide its citizen with basic goods, which include sound health services, reliable security, good public transportation, education, and social security, among others. Governments are often assessed on their ability to provide these public goods not only to some parts of the country but to its most remote constituencies. Failure to provide basic goods, such as national security, may result in anarchy and partial if not full failure of the State.

It is therefore in the interest of good governance that the persons charged with formulating and implementing policies on which good governance is predicated are seized with the capacity and competence to execute their portfolio responsibly.

It is not unusual for ministers to convene press conferences when there is just a marginal decrease in crime, or when brand-name operatives such as Kingfish encounter successes in the recovery of weapons or nabbing of some kingpin. However, as soon as the novelty wears off their silence becomes deafening.

What is needed is a sound and sustainable national security policy which sets out clear and achievable objectives. A policy on which crime plans can be predicated; and a policy that is understood and shared by all well-thinking Jamaicans.

Calling for Commissioner Ellington's resignation is one thing, but the other important question is who would replace him? What will be the successor's capacity in managing the Force's administrative and operational processes and, who will take the blame should the current failures persist?

Keith "Trinity" Gardner is an attorney-at-law and a retired assistant commissioner of police. He currently tutors administrative law at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus.

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