In a community like ours, where our values are traditionally based on Christian principles, we are taught that we ought to take no pleasure, or comfort, in the misfortunes of others. After all, none of us knows what tomorrow holds.
At the same time, however, it is not unusual at the personal or institutional level to base our success or achievements on progress made in relation to the performance of others.
We make these points in light of a story published yesterday by the Jamaica Gleaner, based on a statistic that would make any right-thinking, law abiding citizen cringe. The Independent Commission of Investigations in that country, in its first quarter report, revealed that between January and March 78 civilians had been killed by police.
By way of comparison, and we readily admit that we are not exactly comparing apples with apples, that means more persons were killed by Jamaican police in three months than were murdered in Barbados in the last three years. This is a most sobering revelation, especially when it is noted that in the previous year in the corresponding period, 66 civilians were killed.
The immediate reaction of some might be to note that at the same time more policemen were murdered in Jamaica during the first quarter of the year than perhaps in the whole English-speaking Caribbean over the same time frame. And while that might be true, it offers little comfort.
Clearly the Jamaica police have a serious problem on their hands. Police officers, whether or not even one of these killings is justified, must feel that they are under siege when they feel compelled to respond to interactions/confrontations with civilians with deadly force on so many occasions.
But beyond the fact that the police must have a problem when they are confronted by such statistics, it also screams that the larger society has a problem — a huge problem — especially when you add the fact that overall, you are dealing with an environment where annually upwards of 1,000 persons are murdered.
But what does this have to do with Barbados and taking, or not taking, comfort in the misfortunes of others? The answer is simple: there are lessons in the Jamaica experience for all Barbadians.
Foremost, as far as we are concerned, must be the manner in which our society regards the importance of good relations between the police and the public. Key to this must be the implementation and maintenance of systems that discourage lawmen from believing that they are above criticism or even correction.
There are too many instances in which persons, who have no inclination toward criminal activity, find themselves at odds with law enforcement personnel who believe they are above talking to.
We believe as well, that if our authorities do not come quickly to the realisation that a significant portion of our population believe that it is a waste of time complaining about the conduct of police officers, lawmen will increasingly find themselves standing alone against criminals.
And quite frankly, we believe that the Police Complaints Authority, as it currently functions, is an absolute waste of time — and taxpayers’ money. It serves no useful purpose.
We know that the police high command will point to the number of lawmen in recent years who have been charged with major criminal offences, as proof that the system works. We disagree. Such individual criminal acts have been too “high profile” to ignore. The problem is with the mass of individuals who remain convinced that they have been mistreated by lawmen, but will never get a fair hearing, far less “satisfaction”.
But there is also the other side of the coin; a growing number of Barbadians who believe that poverty, or misfortune, is an excuse to break the law. Now add to that that group who believe that because of their job, family connection, social status, colour or wealth they have a licence to disrespect men and women of the law.
For all its bad or spoiling apples, we still have a police force that is effective and which serves the country well; but we also have a growing sense of intolerance and disrespect on both sides. We may be a long way from 79 police killings in three months, but the signs of a growing divide between the law and the public it serves are quite evident.
Now is the time to act. There is no sense in waiting for a crisis.