Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Monday | June 1, 2009
Home : Commentary
EDITORIAL - Dwight Nelson crossed the line

It is not surprising that Dwight Nelson succumbed to the old affliction of Jamaican national security ministers being over-exuberant in their defence of the behaviour of the police, especially in addresses at the annual conference of the Police Federation, the union for junior constables.

That it happens is, perhaps, in some ways explicable. Those federation conferences can be highly spirited affairs, and ministers often find it intoxicating addressing the police personnel whose loyalty they crave. The police perceive themselves as barriers between raging criminals and the wider society - a not-entirely misplaced view - but feel that their efforts are unappreciated and harbour a sense of siege from those whom they feel they have placed their lives on the line to protect.

Security ministers quickly become empathetic and, unless they take extra care, are often in danger of surrendering sound judgement. Dwight Nelson crossed the line.

Testy relationship

In Minister Nelson's case, he has come to the job at a time of a testy relationship between the police and the Government over the latter's decision to freeze pay and Prime Minister (PM) Bruce Golding's harrumphing defence of the action. A little-commented on portion of the minister's address to the Police Federation was the blunt declaration that, essentially, Mr Golding would shut his mouth about pay issues with the Police Federation while others in the Government got on with the negotiations.

However, Mr Nelson's characterisation of some police excesses as acceptable "collateral damage" in the fight against crime was so egregious that it is understandable that his seeming public admonition of the PM remained largely unnoticed.

That Minister Nelson has apologised for the "collateral damage" comment and retreated from other excesses of his speech is good. For, allowed to stand, they posed the danger of undermining the ongoing efforts of the constabulary to scour itself of endemic corruption, chronic misbehaviour and large pockets of incompetence to being a professional, well-managed institution deeply deserving of the public's trust and respect. These efforts must continue.

Vicious criminals

However, we agree with Mr Nelson that the Jamaican police, more than most, face "vicious criminals" who have no compunction about raining deadly fire on them, as they do on the rest of the society. Indeed, four policemen have been murdered in Jamaica already this year.

But fighting the criminals and upholding the rule of law and the rights of all individuals are not mutually exclusive exercises. They really are part of the same process. For to concede the right of arbitrary action to the police and to assume that anything that flows from this is "collateral damage", is to surrender to the criminals and to accept their prescription for society as a jungle environment.

When police officers are accused of breaking the rules, as Mr Nelson clarified, they must be subject to not some perfunctory review, but rigorous investigations and, where required, criminal proceedings. That the Government is intent on pushing ahead with a strengthened independent commission to investigate alleged police excesses is good.

But we support Mr Nelson's position that when police officers operate within the rules but face allegations of misconduct, there is the utmost obligation on the part of the State to afford them the best legal representation possible.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.

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