Two years ago I hosted a friend from New Zealand in my rural Jamaican hometown1. We were at a bar at around 6pm when five police officers casually approached the counter; they were dressed in dark blue outfits and each carried two guns: one machine gun in hand (likely an M-16 or M-5)and a handgun perched on their waists. Two of them ordered red bulls while the others requested unidentifiable beverages. My friend was clearly nervous and asked whether there was something wrong, I did not think so2. The policemen drank, paid and departed, we left shortly after. A few weeks later, I was in a supermarket in another town and two police officers, similarly decked with both machine and hand guns, were also there shopping. This was not the last time I saw a similar scene, although oddly I do not witness such a spectacle in the tourist-riddled communities of Negril, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay.
Police officers being so heavily armed, even while carrying out casual chores gives the impression that Jamaica is an active war zone and I suppose, in a way, it is. With over 200 police killings each year, it seems that the gendarmerie that is our constabulary force is at war with the people. In 1867, Sir John Peter Grant fashioned the Jamaica Constabulary Force. It was deliberately modeled on the Royal Irish Constabulary, an arm of which was famous for their attacks on civilians and civilian property. Like the RIC, the JCF’s purpose was to control a population seen as inherently restive and untrustworthy. It was, however, presented as a civil police force but, of course, behaved like an army of occupation.
Policing is one of the least desired careers in Jamaica; in fact, the only peer I had in high school who wanted to become a member of the JCF had this desire because of a fascination with guns and he would only choose to be a cop if his application to the army was unsuccessful. The JCF is clearly unpopular with the Jamaican people and while soldiers command some level of respect, policemen are referred to as ‘police bwoy’, ‘dutty babylon’, ‘corruption’ and ‘downpressor’.
I was 12 years old in 2001 when I became absolutely terrified of policemen. In March, seven boys and very young men were shot and killed by the police before the break of day. This was reported a shootout but there was neither police death nor injury. In July 25 men, women and children including 2 police officers were killed during a joint police-military operation. Then Member of Parliament and former Prime Minister, Edward Seaga here recounts some of the victims, which included several mentally ill men3 and teenagers. I remain terrified.
If any member of the constabulary force were to harbour the intention of killing me, my rights would not serve as any form of protection. The case of Robert Hill, aka Kentucky Kid who was killed by police after foretelling his own demise and recording footage of police officers striking him and his wife solidifies my fear. So does that of Kayann Lamont who was shot in the head for using a curse word4.
Nicketa Cameron and Vanessa Kirkland were teenage girls among 35 people officially killed by members of the JCF in March of 2012. Nicketa Cameron was 13 years old, lived in Denham Town and was among 6 persons killed during a police operation in the ghetto. Vanessa Kirkland, 16, was a resident of Greenwich Farm and a student of Immaculate Conception High (I do not remember any reports on which school Nicketa Cameron attended, the newspapers were too busy reporting lies that she was carrying the child of a deceased gangster). Vanessa was shot and killed while another 14-year-old girl who occupied the same motor vehicle was shot and injured. I have heard no news on the investigation of Nicketa Cameron’s death (nor that of the 5 others who were killed in the same operation, two of whom were ‘wanted for questioning’ on various crimes, well they certainly can’t be questioned now!) but a week ago it was rightly decided that Vanessa Kirkland’s killers will be charged for murder. I guess Vanessa’s uptown connection was enough to make her killing more deplorable and worthy of outrage than that of Nicketa, on whom no local news agency even bothered to do a decent report.
The clear distinction between the responses of the Jamaican people on the deaths of both of these girls is why I have accepted that we the people are often complicit in our own abuse. Some police killings result in extended public outrage while others fade quietly into oblivion. When certain people die at the hands of the police, there seems to be some sort of popular agreement that it is acceptable collateral damage for the criminals they are executing. Perhaps if several men had died alongside Vanessa her killing would have seemed less deplorable; perhaps if she was a boy.
The story of the attempted robbery of a cambio facility in Falmouth brought much commendation to the police force as they had managed to foil the plan by shooting one of the men, not fatally. I remember being greatly reprimanded for inquiring what the evidence was that it was necessary to discharge a firearm in this case. Whether someone dies or not, gunfire is deadly force and we should always seek accountability. Death is sensational but it is not the only violation of rights that the police should answer to; several police officers should be facing assault charges as even if the victims are clear criminals it is not always justifiable to use force.
In Jamaica, justice is in the eye of the beholder. Victims, survivors and witnesses hold the key to conviction and acquittal, but they are largely unavailable during trial. Sometimes out of fear and sometimes simply because they do not understand their importance in the justice system, they do not have any faith in it or they do not care about the outcomes. In the popular Jamaican psyche, the only reliable form of earthly justice is death. The distrust of the police force is one reason why alleged robbers, rapists and murderers will be beaten, often to death, by affected people who in turn become criminals that nobody will bear witness against as their hate for the criminal-turned-victim is a common bond.
Witnesses are even more unavailable for trials against members of the police force. A police officer was caught on tape shooting to death a mentally ill man who was evidently on the ground trying to shield himself. Due to a lack of witnesses and acceptable evidence, the officer was found not guilty of murder and the community people were pleased because they themselves wanted to kill the man in a vigilante attack. It was expected that the police would arrest the man in order to shield him from the residents’ wrath but instead he ended up dying at the hands of the cops. This was clearly extrajudicial but to the people of Buckfield, this is justice.
There are many Jamaicans who are in a form of denial regarding our problems, especially the ones who accuse organizations like Jamaicans for Justice that are trying to improve our situation of being biased against the police and not chastising criminals. Criminals have a watchdog; that watchdog is the JCF. Jamaicans for Justice is simply there to seek accountability and transparency from the authorities that so often overstep their legal boundaries. Please do not let your denial-termed-patriotism get in the way of you serving your country. You cannot love your country too much to see its flaws and work on them, even by simply speaking out about them you can make a difference. In my case, I will continue to strongly condemn the flaws of the nation, simply because I am hardest on those I love. I am not a patriot but I honestly love Jamaica; the problem is that the country doesn’t present any desire to return my affection.
What I ask of the lovers of this country today is that we unify to demand reassurance through removal, renaming and restructuring of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. I do not expect an overnight improvement in our systems of security and justice but we need to uproot our policing from its colonial foundation in oppression and replant it in the 21st century where basic human rights are regarded and standards of accountability are upheld.