By Malcolm Strachan
ON May 17 the gunshots that rang out in the wee hours of the morning in Blair Estates sent a tremor throughout the community, fracturing the perception of the police force. So often in police-involved killings, competing accounts on what took place began to spread. Three lives were taken - of men known to the police for a multitude of drug offences and allegations of violent crimes - but there is still discomfort and uncertainty with questions over what actually took place.
Like in most stories, there are always three sides – one side, the other side and the truth.
Trying to identify the truth is problematic when police are responsible for investigating their colleagues in such matters. As there is a prevailing opinion that police protect one another, this does little to inspire public confidence in the good men and women of the Royal Bahamas Police Force.
In fact, it does just the opposite, and The Bahamas is not alone in this - as other countries experience similar issues when society views the police force as a threat to the community.
To this end, the government, as well as the police, have much to do to instil and maintain the trust and support of the Bahamian people. Their jobs are far too difficult to execute without the help of the community, and thus, ensuring policing is transparent and inclusive is paramount to efficient performance.
In the wake of the killings, many have glorified the deaths as getting three more “menaces to society” off the streets. However, do we want to live in a society where we give the police licence to murder three men in cold-blood in a home filled with women and children? It is a lot to consider.
Certainly, a badge should not give one the perceived right to take the law into their own hands. Likewise, our opinions on those who have resorted to lives of crime does not change the fact we are a country of laws. In the event an arrest can be made, we should be able to rely on our judicial system as the last line of defence from the criminal element.
It’s effectiveness, however, is another matter, which should not be remedied by our police officers acting as judge and jury on the streets.
Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said in November - after the country experienced the tenth of the 11 police-involved killings in the year - that he did not want society to view the RBPF through an “us versus them” lens. Unfortunately, with nothing happening to restore confidence in the police on that front, it seems to be what we’re left with.
Though the police have been lauded for the great job they’ve been doing alongside the Minnis administration in the fight against crime, the public’s trust in the RBPF has not.
In fact, we can see just how fragile it is when an alleged gang leader has been murdered, and many people empathise with the family whose accounts depict the officers on the scene in such a negative light. Reports of pregnant women being physically assaulted and claims the men did not, as officers on the scene reported, fire a shot at the police before being killed, have been unsettling, to say the least.
Worse, the government’s stubbornness toward forming an independent body, as has been done in other countries, to in effect, police the police, has also rubbed many people the wrong way. Particularly, with the National Security minister’s previous life as a high-ranking police officer consistently being scrutinised, the government’s evasiveness on this issue has left many to be critical of them in this regard.
Trust in the police should not be taken for granted, as the public’s belief in its legitimacy is essential. This legitimacy encourages cooperation, which impacts their rate of success in crimefighting. Also, it leads one to obey the law and fosters deference to law enforcement to make good decisions.
A study in New York City revealed the responses of 830 residents, surveyed to investigate whether perceived legitimacy of police – trust and confidence in law enforcement – cultivated higher levels of cooperation from the general public. Interestingly, along with increased cooperation with the police force, the study also showed a correlation between perceived legitimacy of the police and higher levels of cooperation with the public.
Similar studies to examine the cooperation of Muslim-Americans with the police on terrorism investigations revealed the same. Outside the US, in Slovenia, a study performed on 638 high school students, likewise, also indicated cooperation with law enforcement depends heavily on one of the major factors of legitimacy – trust.
Without trust, an “us versus them” mentality becomes harder to avoid.
To his credit, Dames has sought to introduce technology as a means to increase transparency in policing with the introduction of body cameras. Days after the killings took place, he announced the imminent signing of the deal to secure body cameras for local law enforcement agencies would be taking place in a few weeks. Previously, he assured the Bahamian people the RBPF would be outfitted with body cameras before summer.
Ironically, despite body cameras being quite effective, it’s reported only few of the United States’ 18,000 police departments use them. Law enforcement in Canada, predominantly, has also opted not to use body cameras suggesting the cost is not worth it. Though, statistics tell a different story.
Police departments in Rialto, California, and Mesa, Arizona, both reported use of force by police declining by 59 percent and citizen complaints decreasing by 50 percent, respectively.
Those figures alone make a case for why body cameras can be a great addition to policing in our country.
This is likely why the National Security minister has been seeking its implementation since the FNM government came to office in 2017.
While he seemingly has followed through with this promise to bring them on stream before summer, we have not heard anything in relation to legislation that should accompany body cameras.
Absent that, one could only imagine the amount of issues that would take place. Will footage be public record? Will there be circumstances whereby footage is unable to be seen by the public? Will officers be able to view the footage before turning it over to superiors?
Once we start asking questions, this list can become quite lengthy rather quickly.
States in the US, which introduced police body cameras nearly 15 years ago, are still developing and refining policies to answer similar questions. As for us, we have to start somewhere, and mitigating the plethora of issues that can come about without properly defined policy legislating the use of body cameras is a good a place as any.
The last thing we want is a well-meaning initiative to fail because of lack of government foresight.
We should hope the government is finalising legislation to table in parliament to accompany the rollout of body cameras.
Anything short of that will be a huge misstep.