The Politics of Crime Control

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Photo Credit: RJR News

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Gleaner column 7/2/18

Late last year I had occasion to read Tony Harriott’s Police and Crime Control in Jamaica: Problems of Reforming Ex-Colonial Constabularies, a fascinating study of police culture and the Jamaica Constabulary Force, of extreme relevance right now. Published in the year 2000 and written a couple of years before that I wondered if I could safely quote it in a document on crime I was then writing . Surely by now some of the excellent suggestions made in the book must have been implemented?

Accordingly I emailed Tony to find out and had to laugh at his wry reply. “Regarding the books, it is very frustrating for me to revisit them and to learn that they are still relevant.  I wrote the police reform book in the hope that it would assist the reform process at the time and thus be outdated very quickly.  Actually I wrote it in 1996-98.”

Well, twenty years later it seems the political will has finally been found to force the Force to reform. After a series of revolving door Police Commissioners, with no one in sight to fill the current vacancy and crime spiraling out of control, the political directorate seems to be ready to take on the task of cleaning the Aegean stables.

According to Harriott the JCF is more than 150 years old, a colonial institution the primary function of which was to maintain order and control using paramilitary tactics. Despite its stated motto, “To serve and protect” it does not function as an organization geared toward servicing or serving the public. The force is highly centralized, overwhelmingly male-dominated, profoundly authoritarian and values seniority over performance and experience over education and training. Dismissal from the force is rare and requires commitment of the most egregious criminal breaches. Avoidance of work is a chronic feature of the police force with the discouragement of reports or complaints from victims who are often treated as nuisances. People coming to report on domestic disputes were often chased away as were women complaining of rape especially if they were considered ‘disreputable’.

The rank structure of the JCF is pyramidal with 11 levels of rank. Even by ex-colonial standards the JCF is extreme, says Harriott, with more ranks and levels than India. The JCF practices differential policing against the poor, especially the urban poor who are stereotyped as being irrational and incapable of deferring self-gratification or of acting in their own self-interest —in short their view is at one with the way European colonizers viewed ‘natives’.

With the departure of Police Commissioner Quallo Jamaica may be entering territory familiar to citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, another crime-ridden Caribbean island. That country’s acting commissioner, Stephen Williams, has had his term extended 12 times since his appointment in 2012.  Even if appointed Commissioner, were Williams to take the 27 months’ leave he has accumulated, by the time he came back it would be time for him to retire.

The situation regarding the police in both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago suggests a deep malaise that we haven’t even begun to address yet.

“Why, then, have we not taken steps we know would have some effect? The answers are complicated, but chief among them is that for every proposal that might be made to reduce crime, there is a powerful, organized interest that opposes it. These obstructive groups often include the most influential force of all, the middle-class interests that so frequently complain about the threat of crime.”

Further:

“Every effort at improvement in the criminal justice system will seem either helpful or threatening, depending on the perspective of some political-interest group. Thus an increase in the number of policemen means more protection to some, more bullying to others. If, for example, the staffs of prosecuting attorneys are increased so that they can diligently prosecute armed robbers, murderers, and dope peddlers, they will also be available to ferret out consumer fraud, anti-trust violations, and political corruption.”

And of course the latter would be a threat to the middle and upper classes here who then have little incentive to improve the justice system or the Police force. The problems we’re facing in the Caribbean in regard to crime control are not new or unique to us. The two quotes above are taken from an article titled “The Politics of Crime: Why governments don’t do what they could to reduce violent crime” by Richard Neely. It was published in The Atlantic in August 1982 and pertains to the situation at the time in New York City.

It’s high time we adopt solutions from countries that have overcome similar problems as  ours as well as the recommendations of our own criminologists.

Jamaica Constabulary Force under Pressure

“Constables have been besieging members of the house of representatives with requests to be given tickets as soon as the call comes for labourers for American farms. Mr. L.W. Rose, St Catherine MHR, mentioned the fact this week in a debate in the house. The action of the constables is similar to that taken in the early days of farm labourer recruitment during the war years. (quote runs on in next para)

“Resignations from the police force were not as easily granted as they are now, and some constables, it was reported, actually misbehaved in order to be sacked, and thus get a chance to leave. It was then reported that a number of men who got out of the force in this and other ways were prevented from leaving the island by the action of officers of the CID.”

In my latest trawl through the Gleaner archives I came upon an article dated March 5, 1951  titled Policemen in Farm Labour Rush (from which the quotes above are taken). The brief report astonished me because it suggests that what we’re experiencing today has roots that go back almost 70 years. Wasn’t it only last August that the selfsame Gleaner reported changes to the Constabulary Force Act requiring sub-officers and constables to give six months’ notice of their intention to resign or face a possible fine of $250,000 or three months in prison?

The reason for imposing such draconian regulation is the continuing high attrition rate in the Jamaica Constabulary Force, an organization slated for modernization in 2010. In that year a Gleaner headline announced Cops Quit, Close To 900 Policemen and Women Resign in Less Than Five Years. 

The most recent edition of the Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica gives more current  data on the dwindling size of the JCF:

The strength of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) as at December 31, 2016 was 20.3 per cent below the establishment size of 14 091. During the year, 643 persons (13.1 per cent female) were enlisted while 549 persons left the Force. This was mainly due to: resignation (71.4 per cent), retirement (18.2 per cent) and death (5.1 per cent).

Incidentally, of the 11,233 members of the JCF only about 2,570 are women. Clearly recruitment and retaining of policemen and women has been a persistent problem since long before independence. 70 years later is it any wonder that serious crime is slowly but surely engulfing the country starting at the Western tip?

Isn’t it high time we started paying members of the JCF a living wage? I think it was Jaevion Nelson who posted the following on Facebook and I completely agree:

JFJ says if the country is to demand accountability and professionalism from the police, then it must also demand that the government reasonably provide for their welfare. It says poorly paid and frustrated cops are less likely to be effective at crime fighting or compliant with human rights. In addition it says low wages also create an environment for corruption, exposing police to the daily seduction of bribes.

Let’s remember this as we helplessly watch Western Jamaica self-destruct. Let’s also heed the searing words of social commentator Nadeen Althia Spence, who invoking the late great Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, said more than a year ago:

If I could write this with fire I would set ablaze some ideas on this page. I would talk about the black boys in Montego Bay who no longer know the value of life. They don’t know because their black always needed to be qualified for it to become fully ‘smadditized’. It needed land, and money or an accent. When you grow up in communities that are built on captured land, what does it mean for the girls and boys who develop their personhood in a place where land and property and money helps to define your person.

Capture is a legitimate philosophy, because dem nuh own nutten. When Daddy Sharpe led his rebellion, when he set Kensington ablaze the white people in Montego Bay were angry, they punished, maimed and killed, and Daddy Sharpe gave his life in the middle of Sam Sharpe Square Downtown Montego Bay, right across from the Kerr Jarrett’s Town House.

How has Montego Bay changed? Who plans for the children of Sam Sharpe and his soldiers, the Christmas martyrs. Dem used to state of emergency, di blinking city was born in a state of emergency. What they are not used to is justice and equality and rights and development. Give them that Minister, give them justice and mek it stretch back to 1831 and remember Sam Sharpe. Start with the land…mek dem stop capture…because all lotto scam is another capture philosophy…

Some problems are just not the Police’s responsibility or in their capacity to solve, even if they are paid well. There will be no peace without justice and just remuneration for all. Nuff said.

Ja Blog Day 2013: Police & Security Force Abuse–“wi a pay unno fi murder wi!”

Poster by Michael Thompson, Freestylee
Poster by Michael Thompson, Freestylee

policeabuse

Mark Shields @marxshields
So NYPD, Boston PD and London Met Police, plus 1,000s more police depts ALL use Twitter. Come on #JCF – keep up. No cost, just results.

Mark Shields @marxshields
#JCF seethis “@NYPDnews: Male wanted for armed robbery, demanded cash, W 26 St & 9 Ave 5/19 1:20pm #10Pct #800577TIPS ”

RMA#872-13 ROBBERY 10PCT 5-19-13 (1).jpg

 

Mark Shields @marxshields
#JCF and this: Officers investigating disorder during FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley Stadium have released 16images flickr.com/photos/metropo…”

Michael Mitchell @MichaelAssured
@marxshields @MizDurie As long as they focus on crime-fighting instead of crime-solving, #JCF will NOT see [or] appreciate benefits of Twitter.

I open this post by quoting Mark Shields, the colourful English policeman who was loaned to the Jamaican police force some years ago, along with several of his colleagues, in a vain effort to combat the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s chronic problems with corruption, rogue cops and inefficacy to the point of stultification. Let’s get a sense of the depth of the problem by looking at this quote from the British policeman:

“When I first got here, there was a very inward-looking, nepotistic culture. They were hated by most of the public in Jamaica, because fatal shootings were running at a ridiculously high rate, corruption was out of control, from top to bottom. Anything from allowing drugs to be brought on to the island, and turning a blind eye for a cut, to police officers contracted to kill other criminals, anything you can think of, they did.”

Even the officers trying their best were struggling in a system that would have looked old-fashioned a century ago. “It was appalling. An exhibit such as a bullet fragment would be put into a paper brown envelope, and then they would get a red wax seal and stamp it on the back like something out of the Napoleonic war. I’m serious. So you would have this old envelope with a Napoleonic seal on the back, and that’s your exhibit.” Fingerprints were stored on cards, with no digital database; crimes were laboriously recorded by hand in big old dusty ledgers. “They would just say, that’s how we do it…”

As you can imagine there was a lot of resistance to the British imports into the JCF. Most of them have served their time and moved on but Shields, known as @marxshields on Twitter, is still here working privately as a security consultant. Ever one for upgrading to new technologies, in recent times he has been urging the JCF to start using DNA testing and Twitter, the detective’s tool par excellence, one i myself have been recommending to both my academic colleagues and the journalistic community in Jamaica for years. The reason? It’s the latest, most innovative means of news and information-gathering, like tapping into a vast reservoir, a virtual motherlode of data waiting to be mined; at the same time it offers conduits to reach multiple networks, to crowdsource whatever it is you need or just to transmit your message far and wide.

Has anyone seen this ‘Male wanted for armed robbery’? Here’s the picture we have of him. or Does anyone know where this place is? with a photo attached to it will bring in valuable responses that may very well help solve your research problem if you’re an academic or the crime if you happen to be a member of the Police Force. If you wanted to know for instance how many police forces around the world are already using Twitter you would post a tweet like this: Are the #police in YOUR country using Twitter yet? Please use #smartpolicing when replying. The hashtag ‘smartpolicing’ would collect answers from all around the world which could then be separately verified for accuracy.

But as @MichaelAssured pointed out the JCF will only realize the value of Twitter if they accept that their mandate is crime-‘solving’ rather than crime-‘fighting’.

With crime as rampant as it is in Jamaica and the Jamaican police specializing in crime-fighting you would think that they’d be experts at it now, neatly taking out criminals as they encounter them but no! Unfortunate citizens who happen to be in the vicinity of suspects will be taken out too; when questions are raised ‘collateral damage’ will be mentioned as in Tivoli Gardens three years ago to the day, when local security forces (army and police with benign technical assistance from the US) breached the barricaded community in search of the most wanted Don in the history of Jamaica–Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

In the days that followed 73 plus civilians were killed, no Don was found and despite claims by the armed forces that they were fighting heavily armed gangs loyal to Dudus only 6 guns were recovered. But let’s not rehash history. We are using the unfortunate events of May 23rd to catapult this first Ja Blog Day and to focus collectively on the problem of policing here and the wanton slaughter of Jamaican citizens.

The extra-judicial killings are too numerous to itemize here. I will pick just one to focus on because it illustrates the problem really well. It’s the case of Matthew John Lee, a generous young middle class boy, who gave two less fortunate friends a ride one day. The police descended on them as they drove through an affluent community many of us traverse daily and after the usual controversial ‘encounter’ all three were shot dead in broad daylight. I won’t repeat the details here because they were very well captured in this video footage of a show called Impact in which journalist Cliff Hughes explored the case with family members and the President of Jamaicans for Justice, Carolyn Gomes.

I deliberately cite the case of Matthew Lee because he was not a ghetto youth, the perennial victims of encounters with the police. He was a young middle class youth, a former junior hockey champion, a citizen in good standing, yet the police didn’t bat an eyelid in killing him. This suggests that a new frontier has been reached and those of us who think our elite status will give us immunity from the violence that stalks the land please take note. They came for Keith Clarke in the wee hours of the morning, they came for Matthew Lee in broad daylight and they will come for you and me whenever they please. Welcome to a reality the poor in Jamaica have always known–the Police/Armed forces are not in control–they are completely OUT of control. “Wi a pay uuno fi murder wi,” as one such hapless citizen remarked.

I close with an extended quote from a former policeman who has penned a tell-all book, soon to be published, which tells it like it is from the inside. I won’t disclose his name right now but do read the excerpt below. The incident described happened in the 90s. I warn you that it contains material that may not be suitable for children or the squeamish. It’s a measure of the problem we now face.

Most cops see the ghetto man as wicked, murderous, and criminal. And so he greets him with that mindset. He doesn’t see conditions; he sees an obstruction to peace and quiet. He sees the ghetto man as an animal that should be slaughtered as soon as possible. I was one of those cops. I was especially resentful of ghetto dwellers when I had had a few drinks. I abused them, kicked them, punched them and made them crawl in the gutters. I was indoctrinated not just by other police officers but by society at large. I did not like these youths who dressed outrageously and smoked weed and bleached and twisted their hair and wore earrings and nose rings. I was programmed to see them as nonentities, but the intelligence and wit of the ghetto man, his will to survive, his courage to face the bullets, baton and jailhouse was enough to open my eyes.

Sometimes it takes the death of another to open your eyes. I witnessed the killing of a ghetto man by one of my patrol member and it changed my perception of people from ghettos forever. That martyr’s death was the beginning of the end for me as a police officer. It wasn’t going to be the last of such incidents I would see but it remains the most senseless act of wanton cruelty I have ever experienced. The incident keeps replaying in my mind year after year and up to this day I feel motivated to speak out against it, to bring closure to this tragedy, to have that murderer in uniform face the Courts, to have the family of that young man compensated and consoled for what I consider a calculated, pre- meditated, cold blooded murder.

It was about midday when I received a call on my portable radio to assist another patrol in my vicinity. Along with my three army personnel, we covered ground quickly. On reaching we saw a young man with a broken machete in his waist trying to elude the grasp of some angry soldiers. It was in the Coronation Market area and the higglers were shouting to the cops and soldiers that the man was mentally challenged. The man seemed to be in his early twenties and was dressed in a pair of dirty short pants. The only weapon he had was the machete in his pants waist.

The soldiers from the other patrol tried surrounding him, but every time one grabbed at him he would step into the running sewage by the side of the road. Suddenly I saw a soldier take aim at him with his SLR rifle and open fire. The man fell into the sewage with half his face blown away. I saw one of the soldiers in my team holding his neck. The bullet had gone on to graze him. I watched the sewage turned red. As the bloody liquid passed me I saw the front teeth of the dead youth along with gum and top lip drifting along. I watched in shock as the young man’s body quivered and he clawed the ground trying desperately to hold onto a life that had long left him. Some people were shouting, “murder” and others were just screaming. Market stalls were overturned as people ran in all directions, some running towards the scene and others running away from it. I remembered just standing there staring, immobilized by this display of wanton cruelty. I looked at the soldier who had fired and I could see the fear in his eyes. He was swinging the rifle from left to right as if he expected the crowd to storm him. I crouched and walked away, but looked again at the body of the young man in his half pants, the machete still in his waist.

His killing did something to me; it tore me apart, for I was a part of this unwarranted and brutal abuse. I represented the group the soldier came from and I felt shame, anger and confusion all in one. The victim was mentally challenged, he was ill, he was helpless and he was murdered for it. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. The soldier with the grazed neck was beside me and he was still touching the spot where the bullet had grazed him. He too was muttering his disapproval of the killing.

When I returned to our base in downtown Kingston I saw the soldier who had pulled the trigger. I walked straight up to him, looked him in the eye and asked him why. He never answered. I don’t even know if he heard me. But the real shocker came when I discovered that I was perhaps the only one there who didn’t think he was a hero. Everyone else was congratulating and cheering him on. I was told later that this was not his first killing or murder, as one officer audaciously put it. By now rioting had started and we were summoned to the streets again, this time to quell the rioting.

I looked at the killer once more but he didn’t look at me. He pretended to be distracted by the noise outside. He was sweating, and there was fright in his eyes. This was the first time I was looking in the eyes of a murderer, and he didn’t have twisted hair or earrings, he wasn’t dressed outrageously, or have bleached skin. He was a soldier, not the usual demonic ghetto inhabitant.

It was painful to use physical force to disperse the mob that had gathered outside our command post but I had to do it. It was painful because I understood their hurt, their anger. They cursed me too, they called me ‘dutty murdering police bwoy’; some accused us of having strength only for ‘mad’ people and I will never forget the female voice that shouted above the rest “wi a pay unno fi murder wi,” That was the statement of the day, for it was true, it was shamefully true.

I left the scene that evening with my team, found a bar and drank for the rest of the afternoon. Later that night there was a news report that a man of ‘unsound mind’ was killed when he attacked members of the security forces with a machete. That was the moment it dawned on me that something was very wrong with the approach and conduct of the security forces. It was the beginning of the end for me.