Witness slain at home - “… before day break yesterday, gunmen kicked down her door and pumped several bullets in the body of 50 year old Icylin Vaughn and her common-law husband, 48 year-old Milton Grey… several weeks ago a group of men destroyed sections of Miss Vaughn’s house with stones… She reported the matter to the police and has subsequently been branded “informer”… Yesterday the matter was supposed to be mentioned in the Half-Way-Tree Court.” The Gleaner, September 1, 2001


There is no greater threat to this country’s future than the aura of fear enveloping our judicial system. Ordinary citizens are increasingly afraid of giving evidence in court for fear of retribution – look how civilians shunned the Tivoli Enquiry. And with cases like Mrs. Vaughn so frequent, who can blame them?


Police know that many killings involve witnesses. But they can never prove such charges in court. No one is going to testify against someone who has killed a witness in another case. Yet can due process be said to exist when to even bring accusations against wrong doers can mean death?


The police killing of Andrew “Phang” Stephens last week again brought to this mind. Here was a reputed “area don” wanted for assault and shooting with intent, suspected of being involved in extortion and gun and drug dealing, and linked to a number of murders – including that of a policewoman. Does anyone doubt that he would have been convicted if tried before a fair jury with willing witnesses? But in today’s Jamaica no one who valued their life was going to testify against him. So he was in essence completely free to wreak havoc.


Now I ask myself this. If I was a policeman and apprehended a known murderer who shot a female colleague, what would I do? Locking him up would be pointless. Because there was no real prospect of any witnesses coming forward he would almost certainly go free. And who knows, he might shoot me next. Clearly the only way to make sure this man never killed again would be to execute him.


Such was likely the logic applied to Phang, and the Braeton seven, and for that matter to Osama Bin Laden. The evidence against him is entirely circumstantial and would never stand up in court. But America feels sure enough of his guilt in the World Trade Centre disaster to put a “wanted dead or alive” bounty on his head and bomb his Afghanistan strongholds. Since the alternative is to leave him free to plot another massacre, it is surely justified in doing so. Self-preservation is the first law of nature, and of civilization.


But such arguments are acceptable to liberal democracies only in war. It is a sad commentary on Jamaica’s situation that they now seem eminently reasonable to many. But between due process and arbitrariness there is no middle ground. Allowing police death squads to act as judge, jury, and executioner is tantamount to sanctioning mob rule, where any accusation means guilt and death. Without the law to guard them all guardians eventually become oppressors.


Many claim that with our present murder rate Jamaica can hardly be considered a country at peace. More people have been killed here in the past year than in the Palestinian Infatadah. If martial law can be invoked there, why not here?


Well, we have been down the State of Emergency road before, and in the long run it only made matters worse. Like all band aid panaceas it simply allowed ignored tensions to intensify and then explode. You solve problems by addressing root causes, not mere symptoms. And countries do not move forward by repeating 25 year old mistakes.


Now it’s a well known fact that a relatively small proportion of criminals are responsible for the majority of violent crimes, especially murder. And many police argue that our crime rate would plummet if they could eliminate all those they felt strongly to be murderers but had insufficient evidence to convict. No doubt most men shot by police are of this type. After all they don’t just target names picked out of a hat. But even if 90% of those they kill really are murderers, it still means innocent men are dying.


Now I have a lot of sympathy for the Jamaican police, for they have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The murder rate among the Jamaica Constabulary Force last year was 30 times the national rate, and 6 times that of its American counterparts. It is a wonder the JCF still gets recruits, especially when you consider how badly they are paid.


Too many of our police treat the common man with a coarse and arrogant lack of respect. Some of them abuse their power and treat honest citizens little better than criminals. And no doubt there is a degree of corruption and incompetence at all levels. But every institution reflects a nation’s habits and outlook. Uniforms don’t miraculously change people, and no security force is less brutal or more honest and efficient than the society it serves.


It is nonsense to speak about our police as an occupying force. The powers that be who protect politically connected gangsters deserve full condemnation. But most police are brave hard working men who believe in what they are doing, which is to try and keep law and order in a country which doesn’t always seem to welcome it.


When all is said and done, they are the last line of defense between law abiding citizens and some of the most vicious criminals on earth. Can you imagine what would happen if they ever went on strike? And frankly the schizophrenic attitude of many Jamaicans towards their police reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy


“For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that,

 an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"

 But it's "Saviour of 'is country"

 when the guns begin to shoot;”


It is good that Jamaica has civil groups monitoring our police. Any nation that lets the excesses of its security forces go unadmonished is asking to become a military dictatorship. But our human rights organizations need to stop focusing only on police killings and address the reality behind them, which is the growing unwillingness of the public to testify in court.


Where are the demonstrations when witnesses are gunned down? Why is no one pressuring the government to ensure the safety of the accusers of criminals? It certainly wouldn’t cost much to put two way mirrors in all police stations so that witnesses can identify suspects without themselves being seen. But that would only the beginning of what needs to be done to rescue the endangered integrity of due process in this country. It is not dead Phangs and Braeton murderers that make me worry for Jamaica’s future, but dead Icylin Vaughns.

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