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Whither a police force that’s too far down the tube?

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, August 26, 2014    

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"THE Jamaica Constabulary Force is too far down the tube. It cannot be reformed, it has to be transformed," said former head of the army and police commissioner from 2007 to 2009, Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin on a radio programme last week in the wake of the furore over the death of 31-year-old Mario Deane after being in custody at the Barnett Street lock-up in Montego Bay. Deane had been arrested for smoking a ganja spliff, a minor offence. Somewhere in the process he voiced that he did not like the police. I strongly suspect that that comment resulted in the circumstances that ended his life.

While Deane's battered image filled me with rage and sadness, it did not shock me. There was no news in the fact that those who ought to have been responsible for his care, either directly or indirectly, fell down on the job. This is a scenario with which I have long been familiar as a citizen of Jamaica, and more so as someone who has worked in or pays close attention to media. Further, if one makes no distinction between the fact that Deane was in custody at the time he suffered injuries that led to his death, and the murder of individuals who are either killed inside their homes while the police look for "suspects", or because people attack the police and are killed when they "return fire", then these are routine cases.

When I was a student at the then Caribbean Institute of Mass Communication, newly arrived Dutch lecturer Marjan de Bruin, pushed a more sophisticated brand of journalism — one that discouraged focus on trivia and personalities and instead delved more deeply into issues impacting the vulnerable and marginalised, such as human rights and the quality of the social and physical environment. It was de Bruin who introduced me to Flo O'Connor, then executive director of the Jamaica Council for Human Rights. O'connor was in the trenches then, defending the rights of the invisible and voiceless. She walked with a stash of photographs and films of individuals, male and female, who had suffered the most vicious abuse at the hands of the police. They were punched, kicked and beaten with everything from batons to burr wire. Some survived; others did not.

Within the last two years, there were several incidents when rogue actions on the part of the police have allegedly resulted in multiple preventable deaths, including four homicides and one suicide. Past midnight on the day terror unfolded for a mother in North Manchester last year, she called the Wait-A Bit-police, located about a mile from her. She was outside their jurisdiction, they said; she must call Manchester. She called Christiana, the nearest post in Manchester. In a spectacular act of sheer buffoonery, they told her a telephone report was not acceptable; she had to come in to the station. That refusal to get off their sorry backsides gave the father enough time to slaughter the woman's two children, then kill himself.

In Clarendon, around the same time, a mother and daughter were murdered by the younger woman's estranged husband. The mother's husband came upon the man trying to gain access to their house and called the police. But an hour later, no help came. He made his way to the Chapleton Police station, bloodied from his own injuries, they told him to go to the hospital.

It came home to me in 2007, when someone close to me was accused of a crime I was certain he had not commited. A woman police constable from the Mandeville Police Station went to his workplace at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon and arrested him. I saw immediately through the tactic: going for him at that time of the day would virtually ensure that he would spend the weekend in lock-up, from which he, like Deane, would likely never emerge. In other words, I approached the issue from the perspective that the police's action was untrustworthy. Therefore, I should expect no good outcome.

From Maryland, I telephoned a highly placed individual who had been a great friend to me over the years. He simply called the station around 8:00 p.m the Friday night, identified himself, and inquired about my relative. Early Saturday morning he was given "station bail" and sent home. The constable, it turned out, was a friend of the alleged victim's mother. The case, after about two years of anguish and expense, was thrown out when the accuser confessed that she made up the story, under pressure from her mother. The experience gave me a chilling sense of just how dangerous our people can be; how easy it was to manipulate the instruments of the State.

In spite of the negatives, I have consistently sought to keep a balanced view of the police. I knew many police officers as a child, friends of my father mostly, as well as neighbours and classmates who joined the force as their only escape out of rural poverty. I have also encountered officers who, in the course of their duties, were the epitome of professionalism and genuine Jamaican warmth and decency. However, the evidence is overwhelming: Officers of the JCF too often fail at the personal and professional levels and as agents of the State. The organisation is perceived by too many as emblematic of corruption, cruelty and oppression. This deviant and corrupt culture has to be eradicted if the country is to make serious progress on issues of crime and human rights, and if the public is to see the police as leaders and partners in the effort rather than as a major part of the problem. There is no creating a just society with the prevailing culture and modus operandi of the JCF.

To this end, Lewin's words ought not to be ignored. Reforms, or minor changes, will not do. Nothing short of a complete transformation — far-reaching changes in the form, appearance, nature and character — of the organisation will. If we are serious about justice for Deane and all the others who have gone before, and if the uproar of the last weeks is to represent more than our affinity for loud, useless chatter, let us ensure unrelenting pressure on this Government to bring about change.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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