Jamaica’s culture of fear allows police to get away with murder

The morning her brother was shot dead in January 2014, Shackelia Jackson had slept through her alarm. She woke up to the sound of his name and instantly knew something was wrong. When she ran down to the modest restaurant he operated in downtown Kingston, she noticed the spoon in the rice pot, the flour where the chicken was being fried. Then one of his slippers, and blood marks.

Her brother, Nakiea, had just prepared lunchtime orders and taken the garbage out when he was shot by the police. Police believed a robbery had happened close-by and were pursuing a “Rastafarian-looking” man. Nakiea fit that description.

In the two years that have passed since Nakiea was killed, police have raided the community several times, always coinciding with the days when the court was meant to hear his case. A preliminary enquiry was dismissed after a fearful witness failed to appear in court. When the community protested the dismissal of the case in July, police cars showed up.

In their public pursuit of justice, his sisters and brother have suffered frequent intimidation and harassment from the police.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an extraordinary story in Jamaica. In the past decade, the Caribbean island nation’s police have killed more than 2,000 people – until recently an average of four people every single week, mostly young men in inner-city, marginalized communities.

But as terrifying as they are, these numbers only tell part of the story.

As our new report Waiting in Vain, Jamaica: Unlawful Police Killings and Relatives’ Long Struggle for Justice reveals, police in Jamaica are not only killing people in shocking numbers, but they are using a long catalogue of “terror tactics” to ensure no one asks questions, let alone pursue ever-elusive justice.

Evidence strongly suggests that extrajudicial executions continue to be used as a strategy sanctioned by the state to “get rid of criminals”. Others killed are bystanders, in police custody, or simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After police shootings, officers tamper with crime scenes, leave the victims to “bleed out”, or drive them around “to finish them off”.

When their relatives pursue justice, they face intense and pervasive harassment by the police, in multiple areas of their lives. Most of the people we spoke to over several months asked us to tell their stories anonymously, because they live in severe fear of reprisals from the police.

Several families, including children, saw their family members being killed in front of them.
Many still encounter the police officers allegedly responsible in their neighbourhood.

Often police turn up at their homes, in some cases to unlawfully arrest and ill-treat relatives of the victim.

They also show up at hospitals, and even at the victims’ funerals, all as a way to intimidate and silence.

Meanwhile, the families are left waiting, dependent on a cripplingly slow justice system.

Claudette Johnson has been waiting 13 years for the Special Coroner’s Court to determine the cause of her son´s death, allegedly at the hands of the police. The court has a measly budget, and a backlog of at least 300 cases at any given time. But this is just a first step in her struggle. If the inquest concludes the killing was unlawful, it could take another decade to get the case to criminal trial.

In a context of rampant impunity, and without legal representation since Jamaicans for Justice, a human rights NGO assisting her, lost funding for such work in 2014, Claudette often feels she is waiting in vain.

Jamaican authorities will argue that they are doing something right as the number of killings by the police has reduced significantly over the past few years.

Numbers might have gone down, but little else has changed in the way the police force deals with the shocking institutional problems that allow police officers to get away with murder.

As of June this year, an independent police oversight mechanism (INDECOM) established in 2010 has initiated prosecutions against police in 100 cases, but only a handful have gone on trial due to chronic backlogs in the court system.

As far as we know, only a handful of police officers have been convicted of murder since 2000, for the more than 3,000 killings by police that took place in the same period.

When we asked, Jamaica’s Director of Public Prosecutions didn´t provide any data on the number of charges brought against officers or the number of convictions made in the last 10 years.

INDECOM has been a game-changer in Jamaica’s response to its decades-old epidemic of extrajudicial executions. But no matter how effective it is, it has no magic wand, and cannot have sole responsibility for improving accountability within the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

Holding Jamaican police to account requires strong political leadership and genuine will to reform a system that lets police get away with murder.

This doesn’t mean re-inventing the wheel. But it does mean empowering the institutions that can build a strong system of accountability.

The Special Coroner’s Court urgently needs reform and resources to operate effectively and to play a role in preventing future killings.

Last June, a Commission of Enquiry into human rights violations during the joint police-military operation in 2010 that left 69 people dead, issued clear recommendations for police reform. The highest levels of the state must pay attention to and act on these recommendations.

Ongoing reform of the justice system must also include practical measures that protect witnesses, and guarantee quicker and equal access to justice for relatives of people allegedly killed by state agents.

History shows the way the police operate and kill does not solve crime, it terrorizes families and cows communities into silence. This cannot continue. No more waiting in vain – it’s time for justice.

This story was originally published in IPS