By ADRIAN GIBSON
The Complaints and Corruption Branch/Unit (CCU) of the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) should be disbanded and replaced by a Police Complaints Authority.
As it stands, the concept of the CCU is representative of a rigged process, with the branch serving as a terrible design for police accountability.
To say that one police branch can fairly investigate officers - with whom the personnel at the unit may have just worked arm-in-arm before being transferred - is preposterous. Here, we have a set-up where officers are transferred in and out of the CCU in much the same way as they are transferred from one police station to another, from one island to another, from the K9 unit to the Drug Enforcement Unit to the Central Detective Unit to mobile to the band and so on. It is incestuous.
This failed experiment ought to be scrapped, immediately.
The Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) is comprised of about 3,500 officers, including police reservists. A little more than half are situated in New Providence and the rest are spread between the Family Islands. If the New York Police Department (NYPD) - a force of 34,450 with nearly 4,500 additional Auxiliary Police Officers, 5,000 School Safety Agents, 2,300 Traffic Enforcement Agents and 370 Traffic Enforcement Supervisors - could face similar issues of transparency and be subjected to external investigations, then certainly a force of 3,500 regular and reserve officers would mean that almost every officer knows the other and therefore it is simply too small - barring any other reason - to have a properly functioning CCU.
If I was an officer, how could one impartially investigate me if I formerly worked alongside them, put my life on the line for them or if they are my family or formerly my commanding officer? I know a family of four or five brothers and sister/s, all of whom are members of the RBPF - not to mention their cousins.
Bahamians should have no confidence in the CCU. Any references to it ought to be erased from the Police Act (i.e. section 81).
On August 12, 2015, Jonnique Pratt, of Money Rock, South Andros, was severely beaten by a police officer who was formerly posted there. Ms Pratt is the owner and manager at All-Stars Restaurant in High Rock, South Andros.
I have opted not to mention the police officer’s name today as Ms Pratt is initiating legal action against him. I will instead refer to him as “the Officer”. In her letter to the CCU, she wrote:
“At about 9.30pm, a man of about 5ft 10in tall, stalky in size with light brown complexion and a low cut fade entered my business place at All-Stars Restaurant in High Rock, South Andros. With a beer in his hand the man known as (the Officer) approached the counter for service as he was off duty and in his plain clothes. I offered him a beer, took his empty beer bottle off the counter and discarded it. I then proceeded to give (the Officer)his change for a $3 beer from a $50 bill. I returned $47 to (the Officer) and remained behind the counter. (The officer) then proceeded to harass one of my customers that were seated at the bar counter with his head down resting. (The Officer) kept pushing my customer in attempt to wake him and repeatedly shook and pushed on the young man. I intervened stating that the young man had patronised my establishment all day and therefore I was okay with him resting if he needed to as he waited for his friend to be ready to leave.”
She went on: “(The Officer) walked over to the pool table and picked up the white cue ball and started fussing with the friend of the gentleman that was sleeping at the counter. I approached the table after feeling the tension escalate in the room. As I attempted to reach for the cue ball from (the Officer) he made the statement that, “if I touch him that’s assault”. With that being said I turned around and went back behind the bar counter and called the police station in Kemp’s Bay at 369-4736. I informed the on duty officer at the station that (the Officer) was at All-Stars Restaurant harassing my customers and I needed immediate assistance. I then took out the $50 bill given to me by (the Officer) and returned his funds to him requesting my change. I informed him that I am making the decision not to serve him nor to charge him for his open drink and then I asked him to leave. (The Officer) took both the $50 bill and the $47 in change and put all of the monies into his pocket. He proceeded to walk out the door to his vehicle. At this point the other customers had already gone back to their own business and playing games as before.
“I walked out the door behind (the Officer) followed by my co-worker Nicky Rolle. I informed (the Officer) that I had already contacted the police regarding his behaviour so he should just return the change to me or we can wait until they arrive to resolve the matter. The Officer spun around from trying to open his car door and told me to get out of his face before he strikes me down … he suddenly and unexpectedly shoved me to the ground. I got up yelling that I would press charges and he was not to leave until the police arrived to recover my funds and take my statement for him shoving me. He jumped in his car and I told Nicky to have someone call the station again. By this time the customers in the restaurant have noticed the commotion outside and some of them come into the parking lot to see what is going on …. the Officer proceeded to argue with customers and I intervened to stop the situation from escalating. I did this by letting everyone know the police were on their way. That being said the Officer drove through my landscaping to get out of the parking lot and proceeded to speed down the road out of sight. I got in my vehicle and went straight to the police station,” she wrote.
Ms Pratt told the CCU: “I met (the Officer) already lying to the on-duty officer that we tried to gang him in the parking lot and when he saw me he started yelling and directing the on-duty officer to arrest me. I stated to the (the corporal) on duty that I would like to file a complaint against (the Officer) for pushing me to the ground given I had abrasions on my back and dirt on my shirt and shoulders. (The Officer) proceeded to yell at me and call me “a stupid bitch” repeatedly. I could not get a word in. He became more aggressive and started approaching me. (The corporal) stood between us yelling at (the Officer) “cop calm down, cop calm down.” To no avail the Officer started threatening to strike me. Saying “I don’t know anything, if I think I could do something to him. I can’t do him anything and he doesn’t know what I came there for because I assaulted him.” He got in my face yelling again and the corporal tried to intervene by telling (the Officer) to calm down. He would not. (The Officer) suddenly struck me to my left jaw and drops me straight to the police station floor flat on my back. I started yelling (to the corporal) to do something and he reached down to help me up ... (the Officer) charged at me again so I got up off the floor … (the Officer was) cussing at me and calling me a “bitch” … (I then hid behind the corporal) completely unsure of his ability to protect me from (the Officer) as he taunts me and tries to get at me. I then ran behind the plexiglass window where civilians are not allowed in attempt to grab the phone and call 911.”
Ms Pratt stated that the supervising officer soon arrived at the police station, calmed the situation as best he could and sent her to the local clinic. Upon her return to the station, she told the CCU:
“As I gave my statement (the Officer) returned, yelling and creating a scene in the police station yet again. He was walking around taunting me and lying about the events of the night so loudly that I could hear him from the back room where I gave my statement. As I sat there with (the corporal) and a female reserve officer. I began to get frightened (as I was) again unaware of (the Officer’s) intentions. I was shaking and stopped giving my statement. I asked (the corporal) if he should be there taunting me as I gave my statement and refused to complete my statement until (the Officer) was removed from the hallway and I felt safe.”
She went on: “In the first altercation where (the Officer) pushed me in the parking lot I received abrasions and bruises to my right shoulder and side. In the second altercation I cut my lower lip, chipped my two middle bottom teeth, locked my jaw, locked two fingers, split my cheek on the inside, cut my tongue and the left side of my face is swollen. I received the $47 change back from (the Officer after the Officer-in-Charge) forced him to return my funds and (the Officere-in-Charge) requested that I appended my statement with a note that I received my funds in full.”
There is much more to her story, including witness accounts. However, what is most astounding is the fact that after that officer admitted to brutalising this 28-year-old young woman, he was allowed to remain on the police force. The CCU told her that the Officer was merely docked 10 days’ pay, supposedly demoted and transferred from Andros to New Providence. What’s more, this young woman - and one of her employees and a customer (both witnesses) - were charged with assault and obstruction only to have the trumped charges subsequently withdrawn.
Ms Pratt has written to the Commissioner of Police (COP) and she was told by someone in his office that her letter would not be passed on to the Commissioner because he should not know about her case because it is before the Tribunal. That was months ago.
Moreover, she has travelled from Andros on several occasions to visit the CCU for a letter or a certificate of conviction telling her of the outcome of the case. She has been given the run around on four different occasions since January. The CCU invited her to have her lawyer speak to the COP and also to retrieve the certificate of conviction. I have spoken to her attorney, who informed me that though she has called the CCU on countless occasions and written two or three letters, she too has been given the run around.
There is clearly a lack of accountability here. Accountability speaks to answerability for performance. It also speaks to a responsibility to discharge one’s duties in a manner satisfactory to whoever may be the beneficiary of such duties or responsibilities.
This case is representative of yet another failure of the CCU to thoroughly address public complaints. Police officers should be accountable to the people, the law and the organisation. Their accountability to the Bahamian people has been steadily eroded and distorted.
Although section 78 of the Police Act calls for a Police Complaints Inspectorate, which would review the investigation and determination of a complaint by the CCU, we see no civilian oversight. Whatever happened to adherence to Article Two of the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials?
The COP is accountable to the executive, managing and administering the force, with what can hardly be described as operational independence. As it stands, the current COP’s superintendence of the RBPF leaves much to be desired. The COP should be accountable to Parliament. We have a “ruler supportive” police force.
This notion that the police can handle complaints against the police is nothing short of a farcical pretence meant to fool the public into trusting an internal system that little to nothing is known about, a system that can withhold documents and evidence pertaining to an investigation when requested by a complainant and/or their attorneys, a system where the COP and/or his officers with charge of a matter hardly, if ever, formally respond to a complainant or their legal counsel. This failure to respond appears to be an insincere means by which to protect the organisation and/or unethical officers against law suits. What they don’t appear to realise that any sensible lawyer/complainant could issue summons for discovery and disclosure and still obtain the same, with costs.
According to Colleen Lewis, in her seminal work ‘Complaints Against the Police’, the police are the “gatekeepers of the criminal justice system” having been entrusted with “considerable coercive powers and a significant degree of discretion”. That discretion is not rigid but rather, in the words of Lord Denning in the case R v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, ex parte Blackburn  2 QB 118, “that the police have a wide discretion in enforcing the law”. That discretion ought not be abused but must be, as Lewis asserts, “exercised fairly in the interests of justice”.
The blue curtain of silence engulfs the RBPF. There is a code of silence. The brotherhood syndrome is obvious. One must be caught red handed and without any reasonable excuse to be fired. Even if caught on tape, there are those in command - I am told - who would inquire of the complainants if they would not want the matter to be dealt with internally rather than simply, and immediately, charging the offending officers just as they arrest, charge and prosecute everyone else.
The Mollen Inquiry (1993) on the code of silence and the police misconduct in the New York City Police Department stated:
“Group loyalty often flourished at the expense of an officer’s sworn duty. It makes allegiance to fellow officers - even corrupt ones - more important than allegiance to the Department and the community. When this happens loyalty itself becomes corrupt and erects the strongest barriersto corruption control: the code of silence and the “Us vs Them” mentality.”
According to Lewis: “The police code of silence protects the kind of behaviour that the “them against us” mentality can create. This remains a problem for any system which handles citizen’s grievances about police conduct but, as is demonstrate below, when police control the process the problem is compounded. The following brief look at the inadequacy of police controlled, internal accountability policies helps to explain why the handling of complaints against police emerged as a political issue in the 1950s and 1960s and why it has intermittently remained on the political agenda ever since.”
“A common and significant factor for the break-down in police accountability centred around the closed and secretive police controlled, internal system of handling citizens’ complaints and the lack of effective redress it provides for complainants.”
Indeed, given the accounts of police violence, misconduct, insensitivity and corrupt behaviour, how could a discerning public trust their internal processes to honestly hold police officers accountable, to properly handle complaints. I certainly don’t.
It is foolish too, in Lewis’ words, to expect this “closed system” to “investigate future partners or superiors but lends credence to the argument that it is unrealistic to expect them to investigate former partners, superiors or colleagues who, as members of the same closed system, have shared departmental, district and station problems and are inculcated with the same strong culture. To use the police family analogy, asking police to investigate their colleagues through internal only processes is akin to asking brothers and sisters to investigate each other or their parents.”
I couldn’t agree more.
According to Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe in their book ‘Above The Law: Police Use and Abuse of Excessive Force’:
“Once they are inside, new officers’ behaviour, perceptions, and values are influenced enormously by their administrators, and there develops within police departments a shared view of the world and the role of the police in it. To be sure, the routine of policing is governed in large measure by peer pressures and by the desire for peer approval, but, whether through act or omission, the chief is to the main architect of police officers’ street behaviour ...”
An external, independent body is needed to oversee police complaints. The CCU ought to be folded and those officers re-assigned to carry out police work in other pertinent areas. In order to ensure a transparent system of checks and balances, complaints against the police and the complaints process must be externally scrutinised. To use Lewis’ words, “the receipt, investigation, determination and discipline of the police” should be the exclusive responsibility of an external independent, civilian agency. The current legislative framework of the Police Act is unaccommodating and serves to prop up this notion of more of the same, of police officers being able to investigate other police officers.
“This policy also means that if honest police have no faith in their internal investigation section which, it is argued, was the case in Queensland before the Fitzgerald Inquiry (1989), they have nowhere to go with their concerns. Through no fault of their own they are forced to remain loyal to a code which protects immoral and illegal behaviour and to turn a blind eye to misconduct, violence or corruption of some police officers. This unjust and unsatisfactory situation only serves to strengthen the ‘blue curtain of silence’, a well-documented cause of sustained endemic police corruption and abuse. By maintaining such a policy governments run the risk of allowing the ethical standards of the police organisation to be set according to the “lowest common denominator” principle. When a scandal erupts, as it inevitably does under such conditions, the community tends to judge the entire force on the basis of those standards and is often faced with having to fund yet another commission of inquiry into police misconduct,” Lewis wrote.
We certainly need such a commission of inquiry given the widespread instances of police malpractice, corruption, the excessive use of force and this notion by some officers that they are above the law. No one is beyond accountability, right?
Why are suspects being questioned by police without being advised of their rights? Why are confessions being coerced and/or beaten out of people?
A Police Complaints Authority - comprised of retired civil servants, police officers and members of civil society - can ensure greater police accountability, elevate standards for quality policing, investigate police abuse of power and assist with eliminating this unwillingness to expose cases of police malfeasance that we currently see. At present, the CCU is betraying the public’s trust.
We need an independent inspectorate of the RBPF, one tasked with the inspection of police stations in an effort to promote efficiency and effective law enforcement standards. We, the public, are tired of seeing, hearing and experiencing misuse of police power and being subjected to these excesses, gross human rights violations and police high-handedness. The days of institutionalised corruption are over.
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