Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Kevin Brown; the Amnesty Report: Jamaica’s PR Nightmare!

To say that April Fools’ Day (Tuesday, April 1, 2008) gave us more than we had bargained for as a nation would perhaps qualify as a major understatement – perhaps the one of greatest significance so far this year. First, we heard the story of the Amnesty International Report entitled: “Let Them Kill Each Other: Public Security in Jamaica’s Inner-Cities”, in which the human rights group made the damning charge that the Jamaican government has, effectively, left the inner-city, urban poor to fend for themselves regarding the provision of adequate security by the state. Then, there was the even more distressing report that the thirty-two year old Jamaican-born, United States (US) army veteran Kevin Brown started acting strange during check-in for Air Jamaica Flight 80 at the Orlando International Airport (OIA). According to the Orlando Sentinel:

Brown was watched, questioned and detained Tuesday by Transportation Security Administration and Orlando police officers after he was deemed to be acting strange during check-in for Air Jamaica Flight 80.

A luggage search, according to an affidavit filed Wednesday by Orange County sheriff's Detective Kelly Boaz, turned up:

*Two galvanized pipes.
*End caps with holes drilled in them.
*A model-rocket igniter.
*Lighter fluid.
*A lighter.
*Two vodka bottles with flammable nitromethane.
*Instructions on making explosives (http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/crime/orl-airport0308apr03,0,5200541.story)

To say that this is a cause for concern is, of course, stating the obvious. Among others, these two reports together highlight the tragedies of war; in this instance, the war in Iraq and its lasting impact on world politics, currently, as well the far reaching political implications of crime in countries like Jamaica. On average we murder approximately 1500 hundred of our citizens each year in what might be rightfully entitled our undeclared civil war. Of course, what is more distressing about these alarming facts is that it is generally contended that crime statistics are deliberately under reported as a way of not alarming the citizenry any more than needs be…Psych! Too late! The proverbial puss is out the bag and amongst the pigeons, to boot!

Between Brown’s actions and the recent Amnesty International report which identified the Jamaican government as a fairly callous institution in terms of its abandonment of its citizens to the whiles of dons, community leaders and other thugs for hire, make the point only too well. Jamaica is an unsafe place to be, let alone in which to live. If you are not rich and possess the means by which to remove yourself from the violence, death and despair then you are a moving target, it seems, and even then there is no guarantee.

In an effort at damage control, Prime Minister Golding has pleaded with Amnesty International for clemency insofar as explaining the extent to which the Jamaican state has been rendered incapable of undertaking the types of interventions needed to critically address the crime problem here. According to the PM Jamaica’s debt servicing obligations, especially in light of the recent Estimate of Expenditures which were announced as part of the 2008-2009 Budget presentations is a real problem. In the words of PM Golding:

"I urge you to be sympathetic to the real difficulties faced by a Government that must find $723 million each day to service the national debt. You will, I am sure, appreciate the extent to which this constrains our ability to address the urgent need to provide social services and economic opportunities in these areas," he said in a statement released yesterday." (http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20080402/lead/lead4.html)

While, certainly a noble gesture in terms of the Government’s admitted recognition of the real needs to be addressed in such a context, the flip side is all the more distressing when considered against the background of world-wide price increases in basic food supplies as well as the rising cost of living, which, ultimately, also impact crime. The state’s recognition of the problem is a good start, however, it remains to be seen whether that by, itself, will prove a sufficient basis on which to request leniency and, therefore, a ‘letting off the hook’ regarding the significance of this report and Jamaica’s growing international reputation as a crime capital.

In public relations it is often stated that you cannot sell a bad product; that integrity and high standards speak for themselves; and that, where there is a scarcity of money to advertise, as is often the case, a good product will sell itself. But, is this really the case? And, how does this apply in the Jamaican context where these two incidents, which are only but the most recent developments in a very long line, likely to negatively impact the country’s public image; that is, as a hot spot for violence? This, notwithstanding that some of the violence does not directly emanate from us, as in the case of Kevin Brown.

Surely, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) has its work cut out, as well as the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture and Sports. In the case of the latter, there is a generally held view that part of the aggression and energy of crime in Jamaica is also what accounts for our athletic prowess internationally. In effect, the same energy exerted in dodging bullets and outsmarting and outrunning the police is what is also used to break world records and win Olympic and other international sporting medals. Of course, this is only conjecture and reflects badly on our sporting image and our sports people. After all, there are no known studies which have yet made the link between these two things.

What can be said, however, is that if and when the academy finally catches up with public opinion on this issue, it will prove all the more obvious that there is a clear need for more creative solutions to be invested in the issue of governance, specifically as they impact crime fighting. This does not simply mean a removal of M16 weaponry nor penalizing officers for shooting randomly in public. Though the latter is cause for very real concerns, especially as an eleven month old infant was tragically killed in one such incident, recently.

Rather, there is need for more meaningful investigation skills and specialized training; an upgrading of our forensic and scientific crime detection skills; as well as fostering and enhancing public trust and engendering public/ private partnerships, as part of key crime fighting efforts. A master plan in which community policing plays a critical role is also essential. This must address too, the trade in illegal guns; narcotics; and the influence of politics on crime, as a matter of urgency. Indeed, the security budget has to be made into one of the priority areas of governance to the extent that social programmes which seek to alter the tense relations between the police and some inner-city communities are addressed. This might well prove the time for the application of specialized behaviour change and social marketing skills to crime fighting in Jamaica.

After all, the US Army just recently indicated that it has discovered that physical combat alone cannot stem the problems of regime change in places like Iraq. Hence, the Operation Hearts and Minds campaign, that also addresses the other needs of the country thus affected. While, surely we are neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan it does not hurt to learn from this example, especially where it is commonly felt that some members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) play on both teams simultaneously – the good guys and the criminals.

I recall, for example; that in 2004 I was a victim of extortion courtesy of three police officers in Spanish Town, the old capital. Here is the story, for those who may be interested:

I was held up by three police officers while driving along the, then, newly opened Spanish Town leg of Highway 2000. Lost and confused, at the time, as I had never driven on this stretch of road before, my horror was further cemented by the fact that Jamaica had just begun recovering from a double dousing of very heavy rains from Hurricane Emily and Tropical Storm Dennis; and there were no street lights along the highway. In the case of the latter, I was not aware of this before, otherwise I would have stayed put in Kingston.

Afraid that I had gone too far off the beaten path, I became aware that there was a car following behind me. Soon there was the flashing of lights and the screeching noise of a police squad car siren. I was told via bullhorn to stop the car and get out. Frightened, lost and completely stressed out, I complied immediately. However, this was only the beginning of my ordeal which was compounded by the fact that I was driving in the wrong direction and with an expired driver’s licence, to boot! (I foolishly thought, at the time, that you were allowed a one month grace period, as in the case of the Road Licence. But alas! This was not to be!).

I was then accosted by three police officers bearing long weapons which were pointed directly at me. They insisted on knowing why I was driving in the wrong direction. They commented that they had been observing me for sometime and had noticed that I seemed lost and unsure of where I was going. At this, I immediately confessed my dilemma, hopeful, that I would be assisted by the officers of the law. However, this was not to be. I was told to show them my driver’s licence along with the other car documents. In between all this, they glared at me very sternly, oblivious to my plight.

Finally, the one who asked to see my licence indicated that it was expired and that I was to accompany them to jail (This was in the dark night; midnight for all I knew and cared then!). After all, the penalty for this breach is – you guessed it, a night in jail with all kinds of people! You can imagine my distress and consternation! So, it was obvious that they had me where they wanted me. They proposed that as an alternative I was to pay my way out of jail (And, God knows how long I would have been in lock-up, at that rate, right?).

Realising that I was being victimized by the classic “hol’ dung an tek way!”, approach as we say in Jamaica, I pleaded that I did not have any money and that; I was actually on my way to Portmore to see family members and had got lost due to the poor visibility and the state of the Mandela Highway which was badly flooded. Only one lane of traffic was opened, at the time. (Hence, how I came to take a wrong turn on the newly constructed highway).

Long story short, I was given two options – go to jail for driving with an expired licence and in the wrong direction to boot! Or, pay my way out of an otherwise unpleasant experience, the lasting consequences of which I did not wish to imagine. Consequently, I was told that they would accompany me to the ABM machine and that I was to approach the machine, just on the outskirts of Spanish Town (Brunswick Avenue, to be exact!) and not draw attention to myself.

After withdrawing the six thousand dollars (approximately 100 plus US dollars, at the time), which they had demanded I was to drive to a safe location and then pay them. Totally petrified, I complied with the request and then drove, very foolishly in hind sight, to a darker spot in the centre of town, behind the old Registrar General’s building where I handed over the money. When finally released; that is, when they had determined that I had been very compliant and that the money was, in reality, six thousand dollars, (which I could ill afford then as now!), I was told to go.

Needless to say, I sped out of Spanish Town and back to Kingston like bat out of hell. I was so distressed I sat in Café Deli at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, regarded as one of Kingston’s finer hotels, all night relaying my story to anyone who would listen. Before that, I had sat dazed at the bar of Christopher’s Lounge, at the Quad – a very popular night club in New Kingston. I subsequently made a report to the Professional Standards Branch (PSB) of the police force. However, as I did not get the number of the squad car or the badge numbers or names of the officers (like I had time to notice that!), I only received an apology and the matter was forgotten.
Hence, my conviction that police officers here tread a fine line between criminality and upholding the law in many instances.

It is useful hear news reports that more officers are being charged as a result of the actions of the PSB, though the matter is also very distressing at the same time. At last count, there were approximately twenty-four who are facing possible sanctions. Indeed, to address the problem of crime and Jamaica’s growing reputation as ‘Murderville’ there is an urgent need for more than just words – all of which are useful in drawing attention to the issue, but which are woefully insufficient in terms of allaying public as well as international fears on this subject. This reality is, of course, further compounded in the case of Kevin Brown by the fact that the allegedly unstable Iraqi war veteran was about to board a plane to Jamaica with bomb making equipment in tow. According to him he was going to assemble and show his friends in Jamaica how to make explosives like those he saw in Iraq. Do we really need to point out how serious all of this is? Of course, the answer is no!

Much more needs to be done to address this very worrying problem. Pronto!


Dani said...

Hello Agostinho:

I am so sorry this is happening in Jamaica and feel horrified about your experience with those corrupt police officers.

After reading this, I have so many questions and the first thing I am going to do is read the Amnesty International Report.

What is causing this unrest in the inner cities? This has to be known in order for hearts and minds to be won. Taking away folks' guns while pointing bigger guns at them will only exacerbate this "undeclared civil war". (By the way, when did this begin and who drew first blood and why?)

Excellent writing and information! I am so glad I found you!

Raw Politics....Jamaica Style! said...

Hi Dani,

Thanks for your comments, very heartening. Thanks also for your sympathies re the situation in 2004. It was so long ago, as far as I was concnerned, I was a little worried that I would not be able to recall the details as well as I was concerned about whether the story would seem relevant to my purpose; that is, in terms of the article. But, apparently, these were unfounded. LOL! Thanks, again!

The reality is that crime in the inner-city and the relationship between that an the question of how the police responds is a complex one. How it started I am not altogether certain, however, I do know that writers/ researchers like Imani Tafari Ama and Laurie Gunst have looked at the political genesis of crime and how that has evolved into the trade in illegal guns and narcotics - a sort of turf war, as it were, to protect otherwise criminal resources within what some regard as a 'counter-state'.

Having said which, I think it is also important to acknowledge that other factors like class, as well as the history of Jamaica's diffucult social and economic problems, including among them slavery/ colonialism have had a major impact on the development of the society in this way. To which end, I think that the politics of crime in Jamaica requires better understanding which would suggest that the Amnesty Report is even more telling in that it underlines the extent to which little official support has been given in this regard (Only an opinion).

And, of course, that does not mean the state has done nothing to address the country's crime situation. Just that, it would be good to see where additional things are done to make a more meaningful inroad into eliminating this scourge, if not bringing it under control.

Indeed, the point of the article, as you aware, is that the solution to crime in Jamaica is not an easy fix but actually requires a raft of approaches. So that, you are correct on the gun comment. However, that was only recently proposed by the new Commish who was installed last year. My incident occurred at least three years before that. What, however, remains to be seen is whether there will be a serious dent in crime as a result of this proposal.

Of course, in a context where gun men target the police and in some instances send them death threats, I am very curious to know how a removal of M16s, by itself, will address that part of the problem as perhaps one of the more pervasive aspects of crime in Jamaica - the lack of trust and regard for the law and officers of the law and the consequent culture of death it engenders?



How important do you rank Dancehall's contribution to national development in Jamaica?