Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jamaica: The more things change...

At almost exactly this time last year, wrapping up a several-week’s long trip to Jamaica, one of my favorite places, and I published an article with the Inter Press Service detailing the struggle of one father to get justice for a son that he claimed was murdered in an extrajudicial killing by Jamaican police.

The story of the struggle of Barrington Fox who, along with Yvonne Sobers, founded Families Against State Terrorism (FAST), a Jamaican organization that now lobbies for greater police oversight and accountability and judicial reform, seemed to speak for all of the those concerned about the level of killings by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), among the highest per capita in the world.

Today, the Jamaica Gleaner is reporting that, far from having improved from 2005, which saw 168 fatal shootings by police in this Caribbean country of just under 3 million people, things have gotten even worse, with 196 people slain by police thus far thus year. That’s roughly about 22 people per month.

Having spent a decent amount of time in impoverished areas of Kingston where gunmen often loyal to one of Jamaica’s two main political parties, the People’s National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), hold sway, and having seen first-hand the confluence between criminal and political activity, I realize that there is much truth in something that Mark Shields, a 30-year veteran of police forces in Britain who has served as deputy commissioner for crime in the JCF since 2005, told me last year.

"Policing in Jamaica is a highly dangerous enterprise," Shields said, as we sat in his office in Kingston. "The criminals here are armed with high velocity weapons, are not afraid to use them and the police have limited resources."

Nevertheless, something is obviously terribly wrong at the heart of Jamaican policing, when groups such as FAST and Jamaicans for Justice are able to cite statistics such as those that came out this week, and then also point to cases such as that of the former commander of the JCF's Crime Management Unit (CMU), Reneto Adams. Six police officers, including Adams, were acquitted in December 2005 of the murders of two women and two men in the rural village of Kraal in May 2003, despite what human rights advocates and even some police (in private conversations with me) characterized as “overwhelming” evidence that the victims were unarmed and that police had tampered with the crime scene.

It is high time that the government of Jamaica’s new Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, push for an independent, non-partisan investigative body to probe police misconduct, something that some policemen I spoke to on the island were also in favour as, as well as giving the JCF’s superintendent more leeway to act against officers that he believes to be guilty of wrongdoing.

Violence comes from a host of complex causes, but with those two simple moves, perhaps Jamaica could begin to reverse this sad trend and close the book an era of impunity that which the island’s populace has endured for far too long.

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