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Jamaica Constabulary Force

A spate of murders of gays (known locally as ‘batty men’) and lesbians is just the most recent chapter in the sordid history of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). Though there have been some officers of integrity in the force, and many attempts at reforming it, criticism is again reaching avalanche proportions.

According to Nancy Anderson of the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights, there is one complaint made to her Council every day about the abuse of police powers. Corruption is so prevalent that the Commissioner of Police, Lucius Thomas, was forced to admit that ‘there are criminals among us... not only corporals, sergeants and inspectors – it goes all the way up.’

Partly due to a lack of faith in the police, Jamaicans have long been subject to mob and vigilante justice for everything from suspected criminal activity to sexual preference. The JCF has proved singularly unsuccessful, some say unwilling, to protect people from such attacks.

The JCF was formed back in 1865 amid a law-and-order panic following the Morant Bay Rebellion, when hundreds were massacred during a protest against the British colonial authorities that turned violent. It has never completely broken with its origins as an occupying colonial force.

Mind you, tackling crime in Jamaica is no easy matter. There are three or four murders a day, in a country of just 2.5 million people. Many take place in the working-class slums such as East Kingston and Warehouse. Unlike the recent death of Bob Woolmer, the cricket coach of Pakistan, these murders attract scant police attention. Killers are seldom arrested and convictions are rare.

On the other hand, police violence against ordinary Jamaicans is not. In 2006 a total of 138 people were killed by police – the record was in 1984 when the number reached 354. According to an Amnesty International Report, ‘impunity for police abuses and a complete lack of accountability in the security and justice systems remained the norm’. In 2006, for the first time in nearly a decade, a police officer, Glenroy McDermoth, was convicted of the murder of an unarmed suspect.

If you are gay or a lesbian your chances of getting justice go down considerably. Jamaica has witnessed a spate of homophobic violence over the past decade. The British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell believes it is being fuelled by ‘anti-gay hatred that is daily spewed from church pulpits, newspaper columns, dancehall music and radio stations’. Time magazine has dubbed Jamaica ‘the most homophobic place on earth’. Two prominent gay activists, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, have been murdered.

The violence takes a variety of forms, including mob attacks on individuals and on the funerals of gay people. Many killings remain unsolved. Back in 2004 Human Rights Watch issued a report, entitled Hated to Death, which condemned the JCF not only for its inability to protect gay people but also for collusion in some of the attacks.

That the situation has not improved can be seen in a number of recent cases, including one in the town of Manville in April 2007, when a mob surrounded the funeral of a man suffering from HIV. The police, once summoned, joined in the general derision. In February 2007 Kingston police ended up beating one of the victims of another attack.

Kingston has joined a number of other Western cities (Caracas, Detroit, Bogotá, Port of Spain, Mexico City) in the somewhat loosely used category of ‘murder capital’. Here, as elsewhere, unchecked crime is often accompanied by brutal police tactics. The use by the JCF of Iraq-style ‘hot spot’ sweeps of troublesome communities is a case in point.

Writing in October 2007 in The Gleaner, Jamaica’s leading daily, Don Robotham points out that ‘a policy of several de facto mini states of emergency is deeply corrupting to the entire system of justice and governance’. While there are no easy solutions, Robotham is surely correct when he concludes that ‘a scalpel rather than a blunt instrument’ is required.

Criticism is now moving beyond the media and traditional civil liberties groups. May 2007 saw the formation of the National Action Coalition (NAC), an activist organization that speaks out against police brutality. It is the brainchild of Dr Jephthah Ford, who has himself been badly beaten by the police. The NAC is mobilizing popular support around a number of controversial police killings.

New Internationalist issue 411 magazine cover This article is from the May 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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