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Insight: Now Our Frightened Society Has Struck A Deal With The Devil

TAMARA MERSON, centre, with her lawyers Fred Smith and Pleasant Bridgewater. Ms Merson was awarded $280,000 damages in 1987 for false imprisonment and the abuse she suffered at the hands of Bahamian police officers. Thirty years later the same issues continue to haunt the Bahamas police.

TAMARA MERSON, centre, with her lawyers Fred Smith and Pleasant Bridgewater. Ms Merson was awarded $280,000 damages in 1987 for false imprisonment and the abuse she suffered at the hands of Bahamian police officers. Thirty years later the same issues continue to haunt the Bahamas police.

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Attorney Fred Smith QC

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!

Comments

Well_mudda_take_sic 1 month, 1 week ago

Does anyone remember the infamous Pleasant Bridgewater and her well publicized attempted shake down of John Travolta that was connected to her failed multi-million dollar warehouse business venture with Obie Wilchcombe? Wasn't she QC Smith's law partner at the time? LMAO

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CatIslandBoy 1 month, 1 week ago

You are truly one obnoxious individual, always looking on the dark side. What does Bridgewater's criminality have to do with Police Brutality? You need help!

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John 1 month, 1 week ago

Police brutality may be only the tip on a freezing iceberg as the number of fatal police shootings has also increased. And many believe the case is closed or should be when police utter the so common phrase, "The victim pointed a weapon and the officer was in fear for his life.' And society who is already traumatised by the high levels of crime and sick of 'these stinking criminals, who don't want go work,' doesn't want to or never get to hear the rest of the story, when eyewitnesses say, ' It didn't go down like that, ma bey ain't had no weapon. He even ain had time to do nothing, they jes pull right up and start shooting.' And then a police spokesman would stand over the still warm body of the deceased and claim that he was known to police. And since dead men can't talk, it is usually the word of the police that stands firm and unchallenged. Then there is the underlying suspicion that police may be involved in other killings, listed as homicides, where victims are gunned down minutes after being released from prison or happen to be wearing an ankle monitoring bracelet and are gunned down and the killer is never found. Again in their press reporting, the police are sure to make it known that the victim was known to police, was recently released from prison, was wearing an ankle bracelet or a combination of any or all of the above. And then one must take into the account the large number of persons going to court with criminal charges and the large number of them pleading guilty because of revisions to the bail act and the time and difficulty now involved in getting bail. So they plead guilty to get a lighter sentence and avoid having to be on remand. And so with this changing of the guard on the police force, where the majority of senior officers are being sent into retirement, one must wonder if this will either help or hurt the situation, with the police shootings, with the torture and brutality of persons taken into custody and with other practices of the police that are unlawful. Will the old guard take this unwanted and worrisome behaviour into retirement with them or were they the conscience of the police force, holding back younger officers and preventing an even greater assault on society.

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Apostle 1 month, 1 week ago

Fred is just too smart for himself. I just wonder who is the devil here. So the spider said to the fly: "Will you walk into my parlour?" Seems to run in the Fred line.

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Gotoutintime 1 month, 1 week ago

I have to agree with the Q.C. on this one---How many times have we seen the Police come into court with absolutely no evidence against an accused other than a signed, supposedly voluntary, confession---The Police don't investigate, they just beat the crap out of someone until they confess, whether they are guilty or not!

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Well_mudda_take_sic 1 month, 1 week ago

{Smith said:} "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."

It's always about those whom Fred Smith has identified as 'victims' and, yes, his favourite 'victim' group, illegal aliens of Haitian descent. In the paragraph immediately above we see him dog whistling to the illegal Haitian community for increased violence as a way of completing their invasion of our country. Never will you hear Fred Smith vociferously speak out against the Haitian government's refusal to make it easier and much less costly for our country to deport illegal Haitian immigrants back to Haiti. Nor will you ever hear him speak up for the constitutional right of Bahamians to be the exclusive determiners of who is entitled to apply for and eligible to receive Bahamian citizenship. This 'man', Fred Smith, is making a fortune off of human rights activists groups like Amnesty International which would have us (the Bahamian people) open our borders and doors to every illegal alien who comes our way, no matter what the toll may be on our society and its very limited resources. This 'man' Smith is nothing more than a viciously greedy wolf in sheep's clothing with a treasonous attitude towards the sovereignty of the Bahamian people by majority rule. He wants his majority to rule and we Bahamians should all know what that would mean for us!

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TheMadHatter 1 month, 1 week ago

At first i thought wow, this human right defender has finally decided to speak out against police brutality - God bless him. But then ...

"...to brutalise and intimidate the weak with impunity, regardless of the supposed justification. Just look at the well known immigration abuses and excesses!"

He just had to throw in a line about immigration. He never talks about Fox Hill when he is discussing Haitians - BUT he has to talk about Haitians when he talks about Fox Hill. He just can't give his attention unfettered to police brutality.

If there were no Haitians in the Bahamas, i believe you would NEVER hear Mr Smith discuss police brutality or any other human rights.

Why dont he just call his organization Haitian Rights? They say the last person you want to fool is yourself.

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