“Let’s move on,” we like to cry.
“We all know what happened,” is another frequent – and erroneous – statement.
We actually all don’t. Some of us undoubtedly do. But rumours and veranda talk won’t help us as a nation. Forensic, dispassionate, analytical assessments of events and conditions in our country is what we really need, both as a basis for change, and as critical contribution to the annals of our history as a nation. This, whether we are talking about the 2010 Tivoli operation, the treatment of our children at Armadale, or how young, poor Jamaican men are treated by the security forces.
Take for instance, the very important report just produced by INDECOM, the Independent Commission of Investigations, called “Safeguarding the Right to Life: Issues from investigations of Jamaica’s Security Forces in 2012.”
Most people will never read it, will never be aware of the extremely serious concerns raised by INDECOM about the ways in which our security forces interact with those in custody and the mentally ill, and yes, I would bet you that many of those same people will say, from a position of pure ignorance, that the report was a waste of time. It most assuredly is not.
Here are three important issues from the report:
Issue 1 – The Fleeing Felon
The “fleeing felon” law (as laid down in case law) states that it is justifiable for police to kill persons suspected of committed felonies if they are running away and there was no other way to catch them.
The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors is an arcane one, now abolished in Britain, but as with so many other laws, still on the books in Jamaica. The distinction, INDECOM says, is that in the case of felonies, the state can forfeit the property of the offender, but not in the case of misdemeanors. On such a basis, one’s life can be forfeited by running away from the issue 1 – police!
The report says “in a case investigated in 2011, the police suspected that the occupants of a car had committed a felony. Their suspicion was based on insufficient information, they were mistaken. Sadly, the occupants ran from the police, one of them was shot and killed.”
INDECOM suggests that the fleeing felon law is incompatible with Jamaica’s new Charter of Rights, and that therefore the police should be wary of using force to arrest someone running away. At the same time, INDECOM points out that failure to use deadly force “when lawful and necessary” may result in the constable being held to have neglected his duty if someone is hurt by the feeling suspect.
INDECOM recommends that instead, Parliament should pass a law setting out the circumstances in which reasonable force can be used in such situations.
Issue 2 – deaths of mentally ill persons when in confrontation with the security forces
INDECOM reports that in 2011, six people believed to be mentally ill were killed by the police. In none of these cases, INDECOM said, did the police employ any special measures. Seventy-five percent of the cases investigated from 2005-2012 ended in fatalities.
“In the majority of cases, police impatience contributed to an escalation of the situation with the final result being the killing or injuring of the mentally ill person. This is a breach of the JCF (Jamaica Constabulary Force) procedures and in extension a breach of right to life.
In a significant number of cases, the victim posed no obvious, or immediate threat to the police or citizens yet the interaction with the police led to the victim’s death or injury,” the Report said.
INDECOM recommends that training programmes and refresher courses on dealing with the mentally ill be provided for the police; that within 12 months, all stations and response units be equipped with tasers; and that there be at least two medical response teams in each region including police officers specially trained to deal with the mentally ill, especially in rural areas, and that such teams be on call 24/7.
Issue 3 – Death in Police Custody
Following a complaint about the Port Antonio police station, INDECOM reported that there had been five deaths there in police custody between 2005-2009. Further investigations nation-wide indicated that there had been at least 36 deaths in police custody between 2005 – 2012. Added to the numbers who died in the custody of the correctional services, at least 12 people died in state custody every year.
INDECOM states that “all persons dying in custody were male and of Jamaican nationality. The men were generally of poor social background and general lack of family support. Some of the deceased were remanded pending the outcome of a psychiatric evaluation, so in essence they were displaying elements of mental illness.
“During the period of our study, the majority of the persons who died in custody suffered from a mental illness.”
INDECOM also raised serious concerns about the way in which mentally ill people are treated once taken into custody, with extremely poor quality accommodation, and infrequent monitoring, noting that:
“The mentally ill persons who died in custody were all kept in inhumane and inappropriate conditions. Where cells are reserved for mentally ill persons, they are, more often than not, the worst cells. At some stations, the mentally ill persons shared cells with other inmates.
“In all the cases of mentally ill persons who committed suicide, there was infrequent or inadequate monitoring. In 25 per cent of the cases, death was by apparent suicide…
“In the cases where death was caused by injury or illness, the victims had complained prior to death, but their complaints were not addressed.”
INDECOM recommends additional training for police in assessing people who potential suicide risks, basic training for all officers doing station duty in dealing with the mentally ill, ensuring treatment for those at risk, properly monitoring cells in which mentally ill persons are kept.
NB the Police have said the number who died in police custody was 29 not 36, that some died of natural causes (which was reported by INDECOM) and that training to deal with the mentally ill is already in place (INDECOM outlined what is in place.)
The fact is, we are fortunate now to have institutions, both governmental as in the case of INDECOM and the Office of the Children’s Advocate, as well as non-governmental organisations, as in Jamaican for justice and Amnesty International, doing in-depth investigations of our institutions of government and how we Jamaicans are treated by agents of the state.
Veranda talk is not the basis for legislative change and policy developments. Reports from agencies like INDECOM, the Armadale Commission of Enquiry and the upcoming Tivoli Commission of Enquiry can provide such a basis. What we on the verandas need to do is channel our energy into insisting that the work done is honoured, that the important recommendations made are implemented, and that lasting, real change results.