Columns

The death of Mario Deane can be the catalyst for change

EVERTON PRYCE

Sunday, August 24, 2014    

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The untimely death of Mario Deane has resurrected passionate and fiery public debate about a number of issues of growing concern to the average Jamaican. These include police brutality and violation of the human rights of poor people, the decriminalisation of ganja, the prime minister's style of communication with the electorate, and reform of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

Deane's death tells us that violation of Jamaican citizens in police lock-ups and the nation's detention centres, whose rights as detainees are outlined in the UN Standard Minimum for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Beijing Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, continues unabated in today's Jamaica. Not even the findings of the well-publicised tour of police lock-ups in 2010 by the Office of the Public Defender have managed to make a difference to the continuing assassination of the image of the police force on this score.

Quite naturally, Mario Deane's death and the subsequent events surrounding it have taken on added significance in light of recent and public allegations, emanating from INDECOM to boot, of a death squad operating within the JCF, some of whose members are the subject of extradition proceedings overseas; and the prevailing image in the minds of many of the police as 'killers in uniforms'.

From a dispassionate point of view there is no denying that there is something rotten in the State of Jamaica, and that it needs no commentator, talk show host or columnist to tell us that. Even so, the sense of despair that attends such a state of affairs needs constantly to be placed in perspective. Otherwise, that most precious of freedoms — the freedom from fear — will elude an entire population in constant search of sanity and purpose, driving it into further self-destruction through paranoia.

This is why, as a country, we are in a bad state, and why, furthermore, the brutal beating and stabbing to death of 31-year-old Mario Deane on Independence Day this past August 6, while in police lock-up at the Barnett Street Police Station in Montego Bay — either at the hands of the police or fellow cell mates — suggests very strongly that the underlying factors accounting for this crisis is a concern for more than the sociologists, criminologists, psychologists or the academics.

I say this in all sincerity because violence endemic to any system of oppression — perceived or actual — tends to feed on itself. And, in such situations, human life loses its pristine value causing a society like ours to, sooner or later, learn to resign itself to the inevitable.

In the context of the history and culture of the JCF, therefore, Mr Deane's untimely death was a misfortune waiting to happen. For, despite the numerous reports detailing the conduct of the organisation vis-a-vis members of the public since 1938, the average Jamaican working-class citizen continues to battle on a daily basis for the maintenance and respect of their human rights against a police force whose culture of brutality against the citizenry has proven resistant to meaningful change. Indeed, few institutions in modern Jamaica have been more studied, analysed, and enquired into with a view to reform than the 147-year-old JCF.

Only six years ago the Office of the Public Defender was reporting that, for the five-year period 2004 to 2008, the members of the police force had managed to liquidate some 478 Jamaicans in a country tenanted by 2.7 million souls. See the table below:

Reported Police Killings 2004-2008

Year # of reported killings Total complaints

2004 43 874

2005 52 972

2006 68 1,101

2007 85 969

2008 230 1,043

Total 478

Source: Office of the Public Defender

The constant and almost daily shedding of blood is saying something very profound about this society of ours. What has gone wrong? Has the society done something wrong in nurturing its people since the advent of self-government and Independence? Is the politics that we have practised up to now to be blamed? Is our sturdy individualism, good as it is, proving counter-productive? We need urgent and honest answers to these questions if we are to save the next generation — never mind ourselves — from the kind of self-slaughter that this generation of Jamaicans, including some members in the police force, is inflicting on itself.

For sure, the repertoire of possible causes for the crisis is challenging. For one thing, the perpetrators of the murder of young Mario Deane, and those who have gone on before him and would have suffered a similar fate, are, after all, the products of a society into which they were born.

Secondly, as every living Jamaican knows, aggression informs ordinary "peaceful" relationships on this piece of Rock we call home so much so that we carry a legendary status among our cousins in the Eastern Caribbean and non-Jamaican blacks in certain metropolitan centres around the globe.

Much of this tells us that a lopsided society that is predicated on inequalities and the marginalisation of large groups is bound to invite such negatives. This is an indisputable fact.

And, while poverty may not breed murderers, a nation with large masses of people without means and with diminishing opportunities to emerge from poverty is going to breed a particular kind of frustration which makes life not mean much in high and low places.

This is why the total lack of respect for the law among such persons — including members of the JCF — is something deserving of closer attention by all of us than has been the case hitherto. For this is a very dangerous occurrence, to say the least; especially in light of the fact that respect for the law is one of the great inheritances that has held this society together since the ending of colonialism, leading to the freedoms the vast majority of our people now enjoy.

My very clear view in the final analysis is that far too many members of the JCF have been convicted for major crimes in recent years -- with the possible exception of treason felony — or have been retired in the public interest for corruption, including their suspected involvement in drug trafficking and other serious offences, for there to be sustained confidence in the force.

The society owes former Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington a debt of gratitude for taking the reform process of the JCF to dizzying heights in the last half-decade. But, as we are witnessing, his best efforts were just not good enough.

As such, it seems to me that if crime-fighting in Jamaica for the remainder of the 21st century is going to target members of the JCF; drug dealers; youngsters who are just plain killers or who find in the Robin Hood story a useful model to invoke when it suits them, or are not arduous to work at a job which they will tell you is hard to come by in any case; human trafficking; cybercrime; and money laundering, then what we need, going forward, is not so much a new commissioner of police as much as a brand new commissioner of crime.

Such a person would be expected to devote theirs and the organisation's considerable professional, effective, and scientific investigative skills in getting the criminals off the streets and out of the force. Presently, there is nothing more important than this to the survival of our criminal justice system. Building greater confidence on the part of the public in the ability of the police not to punish without law is impatient of debate.

We can best honour the memory of Mario Deane by resolving to make the society safe for ourselves so that it can be safe for our guests — whoever they may be. On this there can be no choice among the political parties. It is one clear basis for consensus, if ever there was one; and we fail to do this at our everlasting peril.

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