By FREDERICK R M SMITH, QC
The dark culture of police brutality is perhaps the most open of the many sordid secrets which define the modern Bahamas. The routine practice of beating, terrorising and torturing suspects in an effort to extract confessions is so well established that its features have become staples of our national lexicon. Most Bahamians, regardless of whether they’ve ever faced arrest, can recount with an air of authority the most frequently-used methods, name a few notorious uniformed abusers and even describe in detail a certain dank cell in the bowels of most jails at police stations throughout The Bahamas where horrors take place.
Whenever the Royal Bahamas Police Force command feels compelled to deny such blatant realities, or claim all complaints are investigated objectively, no one really takes them seriously. When those notorious officers come to court to swear, hand on the Bible, that they have been wrongly accused, nobody really believes them.
According to their own statistics, there were 245 complaints against the police last year – a shocking number in such a small country. Perhaps the RBPF might want to reveal how many officers were found guilty and disciplined as a result. I suspect very few. There is a shocking double standard in this society: if a civilian beats, suffocates, tortures an individual, they go to prison. If a police officer does it, nothing happens.
We are all well acquainted with these ugly truths, but the vast majority act as if they are blissfully unaware. Most pretend to believe the suspect happened to fall suddenly ill while in custody, that he or she had those bruises prior to arrest, that it is just a coincidence when dozens of accused people sign confessions while in a cell, only to plead innocence later in court. We act as if we believe the police can be trusted, that the government would never allow such injustice, that our society isn’t really like that.
Bahamians take part in this depraved and hypocritical pantomime because deep down, we have come to believe police brutality serves our collective interests, that a tough stance by the authorities is the only way to curb the scourge of violent crime. That you must break a few eggs to make an omelette and the end justifies the means. Believing itself to be under siege, our frightened society has struck a deal with the Devil in the hopes of protecting itself from further predation.
But the responses begot by fear are always irrational and ill-advised; intolerant, reactionary and ultimately counterproductive. The fact is, few things are more harmful to the safety of citizens and the overall health of a community than a scenario in which the powerful are allowed to brutalise and intimidate the weak with impunity, regardless of the supposed justification. Just look at the well known immigration abuses and excesses!
First of all, the approach simply doesn’t work in removing criminals from the streets. Extensive research has clearly demonstrated that coerced confessions are worth less than the paper they are written on. Innocent people frequently confess while under duress, just to escape further pain and fear, all the while believing their innocence will come out and be believed eventually.
Coerced or not, confessions are rarely the best arbiter of guilt and innocence without accompanying physical or eyewitness evidence. According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit committed to exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA testing, around a quarter of convicted criminals ultimately exonerated had, in fact, confessed to the crime.
By locking up the wrong people after beating confessions out of them, the police are not making society safer. Quite the opposite in fact – what they are actually doing is clearing the way for criminals to continue to prey on society while remaining anonymous and unfettered, their past crimes having been pinned on innocent scapegoats.
Inevitably, those innocents who are wrongfully convicted and incarcerated - and even those who are simply beaten and released - will be emotionally and psychologically traumatised, deeply scarred by the experience. Their outlook will be forever hardened against the police and authority in general, while many will feel society has betrayed and abandoned them, and there is very little to be gained by following its rules.
It is truly terrible to consider – during even my 43 years at the Bar - how many thousands of otherwise docile young people have been driven to a life of crime and violence through wanton abuse by the police. It is even more horrifying to contemplate how the rest of us aided and abetted in this process over the years. Consider also the damage we have done to the rule of law, to respect for the fundamental rights enshrined in The Bahamas Constitution – these cornerstones of our democracy and prerequisites for the kind of civilised and progressive society which so many Bahamians aspire to, but which continues to elude us.
Of course, the victims of police beatings are almost always poor working class people, those who cannot afford lawyers to protect their rights. This is a small country and the victimisation of an entire sector of society in this way cannot continue without consequences. For how long can the police – and for that matter Immigration in its interaction with Bahamians of Haitian descent – continue to act like thugs and outlaws without sparking a large-scale backlash? If Bahamians think they have it bad now in terms of serious crime, they should pause and consider what widespread and violent civil unrest on our streets would look like. This is not fantasy or alarmist rhetoric – abuse by the authorities has led to riots and worse in many developing countries, several in this very region.
In the last 50 years alone, our mighty neighbour to the north had endured dozens of major, city-wide riots, some bordering on mini-revolutions, over the issue of police brutality. Bahamians would do well to shake ourselves from the sleep of complacency and appreciate the grave danger we are flirting with in continuing down this path.
Quite aside from the effect on society as a whole is the devastating consequences for the victims themselves. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is reported to be the most common psychological detriment resulting from of beatings, torture and other coercive interrogation tactics. The consequences include frequent and extremely distressing flashbacks and dreams, decreased neural function and persistent and irrational fear. Many sufferers cannot hold down a job and their personal lives soon come unravelled. The lives of countless innocent Bahamians and their families have been ruined by a run-in with the Royal Bahamian Police Force, often for no other reason than having had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Those who do break the pact of silence around police brutality tend to focus blame on the offending officers themselves. However, we cannot lose sight of the larger dynamic at work here. It is an unfortunate fact that in a small society such as ours, crime is always a political issue. And in a system of governance in which law enforcement is answerable to the political executive, this is a recipe for disaster.
The Minister of National Security, as an MP and member of the Cabinet, has a vested interest in seeing the government do well and hold on to office come the next election. If crime is high, it is natural for this minister to place pressure on the Commissioner of Police, who effectively serves at the pleasure of the Executive and is likely to be replaced if government changes in any case. The commissioner of course feels induced, by sheer force of self-preservation, to place equivalent pressure on his Division Commanders, and likewise they on the Station Chiefs, and so on down the ranks in a constant chain of compulsion, until all of that compounded pressure from above comes to rest on the shoulders of lowly constables. This officer is of course, also the one who witnesses the gruesome results of violent crime on a daily basis, whose days are haunted by the cries of the bereaved and whose dreams are invaded by the faces of newly orphaned children. Is it any wonder, under the circumstances, that these officers have come to feel it is their job, not just to prevent or detect crimes, but to intervene forcefully and ‘fix’ the violent tendencies in society?
And just as the problem originates at the top, so must the solution. Sadly, over the years FNM administrations have attracted a reputation for harsh policing tactics and an almost military approach to law enforcement. The present incarnation is no exception, with brutality claims and police involved killings skyrocketing in the past few years. If there is to be a necessary change in attitudes, history does not suggest the current government will be its source.
It is up to the Minnis administration to prove me wrong. All that is needed is a little courage and the political will to intervene and make the eradication of police and immigration brutality an urgent priority for its remaining three years in office. In addition, public prosecutors and judges must stop turning a deaf ear to the hundreds of accused, from diverse backgrounds, different neighbourhoods and even islands, who come before the courts telling tales of brutality and violence that are uncannily similar in even the smallest details. These claims must be taken seriously and investigated, rather than ignored or dismisses as falsehoods.
Finally, PM Minnis and Ministers Dames and Symonette must urgently create, by law, an independent police and immigration complaint commission and provide training in civil rights, sensitivity and psychological evaluation of officers. My FNM government, please do not forget to finally make good in this term, on the regular pre-election broken promises by past FNM and PLP administrations of a Human Rights Ombudsman!