Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

JAMAICA: Grieving Father Takes on Police Impunity

Michael Deibert

KINGSTON, Sep 25 2006 (IPS) - Barrington Fox carries a photo of his 18-year-old son, Joel, with him. The picture, portraying a cocky young man, his eyes shielded behind a pair of sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, is all that Fox has since Joel, the youngest of three brothers and a sister, was killed by Jamaican police six years ago.

Arrested and handcuffed by police one early September morning, Joel, who had moved from his family’s home in nearby Bull Bay and began, by his father’s own admission, to run with a tough crowd in Jamaica’s sprawling capital, Kingston, never made it to the police station.

He was shot to death en route, a killing a Jamaican court found to be justifiable homicide but which Fox, who cites the fact that his son was handcuffed and that powder-burns on the body attested to death at close range, views as little more than a police-sanctioned murder.

“He was accused of a crime,” says Fox, citing the fact that police said his son was found in possession of an illegal weapon. “And I have no problem if the police apprehend him, carry him through the system, go through the courts and have him pay for any crime. But the manner in which it was done… He was supposed to reach the police station and he ended up dead.”

The killing prompted the elder Fox, a soft-spoken 54-year-old plumber with no prior involvement in politics, to co-found Families Against State Terrorism (FAST), a Jamaican organisation that now lobbies for greater police oversight and accountability and judicial reform in this Caribbean country of just under 3 million people.

Fox is not the only one voicing concern. The level of killings by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is among the highest per capita in the world, with 168 fatal shootings by police in 2005. Since October 1999, when three officers were convicted of beating a prisoner to death, the country has witnessed more than 800 police killings, many of which Amnesty International characterised as “blatantly unlawful” in a February 2006 report. That same month, the first Jamaican police officer in nearly seven years was convicted of murder while on duty, for killing a man in 2000.

In one of the most notorious incidents, six police officers 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 charged was strong evidence that the victims were unarmed and that police had tampered with the crime scene. The officer who led the raid, Reneto Adams, at the time commander of the JCF’s Crime Management Unit (CMU), later celebrated his release in a rap song and remains employed by the police, though re-assigned to a desk job.

“From our point of view the most urgent (human rights problem) in Jamaica is police killings,” said Carolyn Gomes, executive director of Jamaicans for Justice, an organisation formed after a hike in gasoline prices in April 1999 prompted three days of rioting on the island which saw nine killed, over 150 arrested and millions of dollars worth of damage to the Jamaican economy.

“We are convinced that a number of them are extra-judicial and nobody is being held accountable for that,” she told IPS.

Among the group’s endeavors is maintaining a Library and Documentation Centre relating to human rights and legal issues, and publishing yearly reports assessing the state of Jamaican human rights. The group also prints and distributes wallet-sized flyers advising citizens on their rights when dealing with police and the judiciary.

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of the environment in which the Jamaican police work. In 2005, some 1,650 people were murdered on the island, a record high. An average of 12 police officers are murdered yearly by firearms. Much of the violence surrounds Jamaica’s notorious “posses”, drug gangs with murky links to some in Jamaica’s political establishment who surface as “community leaders” in get-out-the-vote efforts during election time.

“Policing in Jamaica is a highly dangerous enterprise,” said Mark Shields, a 30-year veteran of police forces in Britain who has served as deputy commissioner for crime in the JCF since 2005. “The criminals here are armed with high velocity weapons, are not afraid to use them and the police have limited resources.”

“We are struggling to find funds to buy body armour for every single policeman who’s on the street, and not all of them have firearms with them at all times. It is that backdrop of high levels of gun crime that our officers face every day,” he said in an interview.

Shields also notes the lack of any process in the Jamaican police establishment whereby, if the integrity of an individual officer is questioned, the police commissioner has the right to put the officer on leave until any suspicions are cleared up.

“There is a serious problem in terms of the commissioner’s hands being tied significantly when he suspects officers of criminal impropriety, corruption or just unprofessional conduct and bad performance,” Shields said.

JCF numbers suggest that new, more professional policing practices have in fact begun to bear fruit. According to the statistics, the number of homicides in violent western Kingston this year stands at 55, down from 78 the year before, and on the island as a whole, murders stand at 895, down from 1,196 at this time a year ago. In the nearby city of Spanish Town, police recently succeeded in breaking up the feared Clansmen and One Order drug gangs

“The police might kill a few innocent men and I say no about that, but they should make ’nuff criminals behave themselves that terrorise people,” said Marvin Hawthorne, a 29-year-old Kingston cab driver plying his trade amid the vendors and pumping dancehall music of the city’s downtown Parade district. “The criminals can’t just get up and behave like that.”

Barrington Fox remains unconvinced that enough is being done, however, and four organisations – Jamaicans for Justice, FAST, the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights and the local chapter of Amnesty International – recently had a meeting with Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to stress what they viewed as the need for an independent investigative body to examine charges of police corruption, abuses and killing. According to those present, they left the meeting feeling the prime minister was unenthusiastic about the creation of any entity charged with that task.

“As long as I live I will continue to speak out against this,” said Fox, motioning to the picture of his murdered son. “I’m not going to stop. This is not just about my son any more, it’s about a system that’s not working, and we need that system to change.”

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