Time to tackle police brutality
By PACO NUNEZ
Tribune242 News Editor
Nassau, The Bahamas
A young man is at the wrong place at the wrong time. He walks into a grocery store right after it's been robbed and the cashier shot.
Overturned carts, frantic shoppers running about aimlessly, a pool of blood spreading across the floor; the shock of it all sends him bolting back through the door - right into the arms of a responding policeman.
Three hours later, the young man finds himself tied to a metal chair in a small, hot room, trying desperately to suck in air through a taught plastic bag as a burly officer pulls it taught yet again, while his colleague demands to know the name of the accomplice, the one who made off with the gun and the money.
In the end, terrified and exhausted, the young man signs a confession.
Such scenes are the stuff of a thousand detective novels and suspense movies. They are also a regular feature of the real life drama unfolding every day in our court system.
As a staff reporter I spent a year on the court beat, but can't bring to mind a single murder or armed robbery trial where the accused hadn't signed a confession while in police custody.
But when the court date came, they almost always pleaded not guilty. Their explanation? They are innocent, but the confession was beaten out of them.
As grim as violent crime trials can be, the presence of the same two officers, fingered by virtually every alleged victim of police brutality, waiting on the witness bench to tell yet another jury that, no, they didn't beat the accused, became the joke of the day among the Bank Lane press corps.
Of course, we knew that most of the sob stories were pure fiction. But we also knew that some of them had to be true.
Everyone knows suspects are beaten while in police custody; this country is far too small for that kind of thing to remain a secret. And I don't mean officers using force to secure a prisoner who lashes out or attempts to escape, I mean the use of violence to extract a confession, or sometimes just for fun.
Now, many Bahamians don't have a problem with this. This is a society plagued by crime and violence at unprecedented levels and many feel the justice system is just too soft on offenders; someone has to give them what they deserve.
The police are up against men who are little more than animals, and understand only violence, the argument goes.
And, we can be confident the right guy is taking the beating, because we have faith in the integrity of our police force.
But were the people who hold this attitude to pause and really think about it for a moment, they might come to some different conclusions.
Let us leave to one side for the moment abstract ideas of justice, lofty notions of human rights and the presumption of innocence, psychologists' arguments about how violence begets violence, and look at the matter the way a seasoned police officer would: in terms of good old-fashioned law and order.
* that while some of us, usually those with more to lose, do have confidence in the integrity of the police, a large and growing segment of the population doesn't - the very segment that concerns us: young men from inner city neighbourhoods, roughly between the ages of 15 and 35.
* that this is probably due in part to the fact that the victims of interview room beatings are usually drawn from this same demographic.
* that these young men, their relatives and friends are precisely the social group the police are taking great pains to reach out to as they continue to push the message that they can't solve crime alone.
* that if your son, nephew or family friend tells you horror stories about their treatment at the hands of police, you're probably less than likely to want to help officers with an investigation.
* that police are competing for the hearts and minds of inner city communities against a host of contrary influences, among them: a drug trade that promises money, popularity and power; a ghetto gun culture imported from the inner cities of our neighbour to the north; and various Caribbean subcultures that see the police as an instrument of oppression.
* that information secured by beatings or under torture is unreliable, as people will say anything to cause the pain to stop. Therefore, it is inevitable that sometimes the police will get a confession from the wrong man, leaving the real violent criminal loose on the streets.
With all this in mind, it isn't difficult to see how police brutality does far more harm than good, promoting the very culture of lawlessness and antagonism towards authority that are at the root of our crime problem in the first place.
Perhaps even more significant is a secondary effect: it erodes the faith in the police of the "majority in the middle", those who are neither the fans of "tough" policing of this kind, nor friends of the criminals.
Do countless suspects name the same two or three tormentors and describe an identical torture room in the bowels of CDU headquarters because they are telling the truth, or because there is a vast conspiracy amongst criminals?
Will officers really beat a man they suspect might be innocent, just because they're under pressure to get a confession?
Questions such as these muddy the waters of right and wrong, and lead many a law-abiding citizen to wonder if it isn't better to just avoid becoming involved at all - which, in turn, leaves the police with even fewer allies in the fight against crime.
How far this attitude can be justified is hard to say.
Senior officers do acknowledge that beatings happen, but put it down to the work of a few "bad apples."
Rogue cops certainly exist, but it is also true that fear and violence are considered important tools of the trade in certain units of the force.
A few years ago, the lead officer in a murder trial admitted to me that the case would be difficult to crack, because unlike most of the matters he handles, the witnesses and suspects were from wealthy families, came to police interviews with expert lawyers on hand, and therefore couldn't be questioned in the normal way.
"We can't beat 'em," he said when asked to elaborate.
Speaking to this officer at length, I got the impression that he genuinely wanted to do all he could to protect the public from criminals, but simply lacked the skills to conduct an investigation in any other fashion.
Yet police officers around the world employ a variety of reliable, efficient, methods of detection and interrogation that do not involve violence.
The government has made its move in the war against crime, bringing a raft of anti-crime Bills to parliament for debate this month.
It is high time the police force followed suit and acknowledged that a dramatic change is necessary if they want to win the confidence of the public and unite all facets of this society against crime.
The top brass should move immediately to identify the cutting-edge tools and techniques used in other countries that would be best suited to the Bahamas, and either send Police College staff to learn these methods, or bring the appropriate trainers in from overseas.
Most importantly, it must be made clear that there will be zero tolerance for police brutality in any form going forward, and all officers must be made to understand they will be held accountable for their actions.
What do you think?
October 31, 2011