Jamaican police killed about a thousand young men between the time they shot Jermey Smith in 2002 and Eric Gayle just over a week ago (April, 2010). When Smith was killed, the rate of police fatal shootings seemed excessive at 133 per year. Last year alone, the rate was 263, 224 in 2008, and 272 in 2007. Eric is one of about 70 persons killed by police in the first 90 days of this year.
New York City, a city with a population three times Jamaica’s, had 13 police fatal shootings in 2006.
So prevalent (almost routine) is the Jamaican State’s infringement of the citizens’ right to life, that the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in its 2007 manifesto stated: “The abuse by the State of the rights of ordinary citizens is virtually a daily occurrence with inadequate means of prevention or redress.” That was before the JLP came into power.
In theory, Eric should benefit from a new law to “set up an independent authority to investigate instances of abuse by members of the security forces.” Many other bodies have been set up over the years to protect citizens’ rights against the state. We have the Bureau of Special Investigations, the Police Public Complaints Authority, and the Public Defender’s Office. To add to these, we have the Director of Public Prosecutions who can prosecute police for unlawful killings. Further, we have the Commissioner of Police to discipline police for breaching regulations, a Minister of Justice, a Minister of National Security and a Prime Minister to ensure that the rights of all (including Jermey and Eric) are protected.
Yet, police continue to feel assured of impunity for taking the lives of civilians.
In over a decade, only one policeman has been convicted for murdering a civilian, and that case is to be re-tried after it was appealed. About twenty times per month, the police give the identical shootout story. “We were on operations in the area when we saw a group of men acting suspiciously. They opened fire and we returned the fire while taking evasive action. Soon after the shootout, we saw X and Y suffering from gunshot wounds. We took the wounded men to hospital where they were pronounced dead.”
Communities may report hearing men begging for their lives, or invite television cameras to show blood on beds, in bathrooms, or in fields where shootouts seem impossible to reconstruct. The police never suffer death (unless by friendly fire) and rarely injury, even though the alleged attackers always have the advantage. The deceased almost inevitably receive gunshot injuries to the head and torso, as if they had presented themselves as stationary targets. Sometimes, as in Eric’s case, the deceased are said to have fired home-made shotguns. Clearly the police still expect the public to believe that someone with a “one-pop” gun (needing to be reloaded every time it is fired) would take on jeeploads of policepersons armed with automatic and semi-automatic weapons. And police report that civilians act suicidally an average of twenty times per month with predictable results.
Some months ago, Jamaica’s Minister of National Security, reading from a prepared speech, referred to deaths such as Jermey’s and Eric’s as “collateral damage”. He said he would “use every effort’ to defend police officers, who were ‘hauled before the courts like common criminals’.”
Two weeks ago, I attended a hearing at the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. The aim was to highlight the Jamaican government’s breach of the American Convention of Human Rights as regards the right of life of Jermey Smith. The Jamaican government did not turn up for the hearing.
The authorities are not doing much better protecting the right to life of the 1600+ Jamaican civilians and 10+ police persons killed each year.
According to police crime figures, about 80 per cent of murderers walk the streets free. The reasons can be corruption, poor policing practices, ineffective investigation, or absence of systems to hold the police accountable for serving and protecting the lives of the public.
So what can we do? Imagine the person killed by the police is your uncle, brother, cousin, spouse, or father. Imagine that his life matters as much as the lives of your loved ones. Ponder on the African proverb, “Peace and injustice are like night and day; they cannot stay together.”
Then consider taking action such as:
1. Posting this note on your FB page and forwarding it to your contacts.
2. Calling talk show hosts in Jamaica or in the Diaspora.
3. Writing letters to the media in Jamaica or in the Diaspora.
4. Sending email or making phone calls to the authorities
• Prime Minister Bruce Golding – email@example.com
• Ministry of National Security Dwight Nelson – nelson@N5.com.jm
• Minister of Justice, Dorothy Lightbourne – firstname.lastname@example.org
• Leader of the Opposition Portia Simpson – email@example.com
• Opposition spokesperson on National Security, Peter Bunting – firstname.lastname@example.org
• Opposition spokesperson on Justice, AJ Nicholson – email@example.com
• Public Defender Earl Witter – firstname.lastname@example.org
• Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington – (876) 927-4421
• Chairman of the Police Public Complaints Authority, former Chief Justice Lensley Wolfe – (876) 968-8875
• Director of Public Prosecutions – email@example.com
An African proverb says, “If your neighbour’s house burns, draw water for putting out the fire on yours.” The fire next time might come anywhere, and from any direction.
By Yvonne McCalla Sobers
Chairman, Families Against State Terrorism (FAST)