Friday, March 6, 2009

State sanctioned killing in a country of killers

"Police is gansta." That is a quote from a self-described garrison don during an interview for a Discovery Channel interview for the series Gang Nation. The episode that aired a few days ago featured the interminable and brutal wars being waged on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica's poorest communities between political and geographical factions. The don summed up what many Jamaicans believe: that the police force is corrupted and is part of the island's frightening crime problem.

Ask the average Jamaican what they think of Jamaica's Constabulary Force and you are likely to hear corrupt, inept, and overwhelmed. Ask what they think of the country's justice system - that in large part, rests on those officers - and you are more likely to get a humored chuckle than an answer. It was alarming to me then that in December Jamaica's government elected to retain the death penalty for capital offenses. It seems Prime Minister Golding and other members of parliament have far more faith in the honesty of police officers who make arrests and investigate crimes, and in the efficiency of the courts that prosecute offenders, than does the average Jamaican - at home or abroad.

Cases of police shootings have been the source of morbid jokes for as long as I can remember: Police shoot man waving newspaper: Officers claim self-defense. Amnesty International's 2008 report on human rights avers that 206 people were killed by police between January and September 2006. Very often eyewitness reports conflict greatly with the claims of the police.

Everyone who drives in Jamaica becomes familiar with the language of policemen on the take: "So what you can do fi yu'self?" With that question, pulled over drivers know to count their dollars and consider the option to pay the crooked officer, rather than take a trumped up ticket and lose a day of work to deal with the backward and inefficent courts. How, in that context of disfunction, can a government or a judge opt to take the life of an accused?

Under the best circumstances I am apprehensive about the death penalty. Human error and ill-will make the permanence of state-sanctioned killings scary prospects for me. With every release from death row here in the United States, I find it more difficult to support the death penalty. With widespread corruption, low police morale, and the lack of effective policing and investigation practices, Jamaica is far from the best of circumstances. The margin of error widens into a gaping hole of deadly possibilities.

I understand the need to deter crime, but crime and violence in Jamaica have to be approached with a holistic plan. That plan must include weeding out corruption from the justice system, building a police force of integrity, fostering public trust through community policing, and investing in cutting-edge investigation technology. While those tasks are neither small nor simple, they are necessary to protect the lives of all Jamaicans - including those accused of crimes. Any plan to overhaul the island's justice system is long-term. But only at the end of that arduous process should capital punishment be continued - if at all.