By FREDERICK R M SMITH, QC
Tragically, police and Immigration abuse, oppression and brutality in The Bahamas remain systemic, ubiquitous, unreformed, unrelenting, unaccountable and unapologetic. PLP and FNM governments alike do nothing about it!
I am proud that Human Rights Bahamas and my firm, Callenders, shepherd the claims of hundreds of victims through the courts seeking justice. Historically, the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association and my firm have decried abuse and sought justice for decades. Yet, the abuse continues unabated! I commend other lawyers who continue to pursue justice in an “In-Justice System” which is heavily stacked against victims. The government invariably defends, delays and obstructs; and with no legal aid, no jury trials and no contingency fees, it is a herculean task to succeed.
In April 2019, the Tribune Insight published my article entitled, “The Ugly Truth About Police Brutality”. Everything I said then, holds true today.
In a Judgment last week by Judge Indra Charles, the Supreme Court found the police liable for damages for injuries to Jermaine Rahming who was repeatedly shot from behind. The judge ruled that “To pull a trigger… must be a measure of last resort”. Damages will be assessed in September.
Last Saturday, three men in a vehicle were shot to death by police on Cowpen Road in Nassau. The facts surrounding these killings are unclear. I call on the Commissioner for full transparency.
The videos of police brutality going viral in the wake of George Floyd’s death are typical of what has been going on for decades in The Bahamas, with little outcry. Bahamians have added their voices to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and worldwide – a commendable show of solidarity with victims of the twin scourges of law enforcement brutality and ethnic discrimination. Less admirable, and baffling, is the contrast between this show of righteous indignation over atrocities perpetrated abroad, and the veil of stubborn silence and fatuous denial which continues to be drawn across our own dark culture of official violence.
The routine practice of police beating, terrorising and torturing suspects 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 police stations where these horrors take place.
Meanwhile, and increasingly so over the past few years, police officers have adopted a policy of “shoot first and ask questions later” with few to no consequences, despite the many witnesses willing to cry official murder. According to their own statistics, there were 245 complaints about police conduct in 2018– a shocking number in such a small country. Officials produce no equivalent stats regarding complaints against Immigration officers, because sadly, their victims are not deemed valuable enough to warrant official protection or even concern.
We are all well acquainted with these ugly truths, but the vast majority of Bahamians act as if they are blissfully unaware. Most pretend to believe anyone injured while in official custody must have fallen suddenly ill, that he or she had those bruises prior to arrest, that it is just a coincidence when dozens of accused persons 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 an Immigration officer would never take advantage of a helpless woman or child, that the government would never allow such injustices, that our society isn’t really like the U.S. Not us – we would never arbitrarily abuse and victimise the marginalised and helpless. It is truly terrible to consider, during even my 43 years at the Bar, how many thousands of young people have been driven to a life of crime and violence in response to their abuse and traumatisation at the hands of the authorities.
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.
Why is it that Bahamians consider police brutality in the United States to be a shocking crime against humanity, but deem the very same behaviour here, unworthy of taking a stand against? Obviously, cases like that of George Floyd highlight the serious problem of racial discrimination on the part of white officers against African Americans and other minorities in the U.S. But the real issue is not so much the identity of the perpetrators, as it is that of the victims – individuals already disadvantaged by class and institutional discrimination who have little to no recourse to justice.
This is precisely the situation in The Bahamas, where victims of official abuse are almost always poor, black, working class people who cannot afford lawyers to protect their rights. It amounts to the victimisation of an entire segment of our population, precisely because of who they are. The fact that there is not a clear skin-colour divide between the oppressors and the oppressed should not be allowed to disguise the fact this is discrimination, pure and simple. If you think that race doesn’t play a part in it, ask the RBPF what percentage of those who file complaints against them are white. Or rich. But then, we can already guess the answer.
This discriminatory aspect is even more pronounced when you consider the decades-long campaign of wholesale terror perpetrated against Haitians and Bahamians of Haitian descent in this country. People are regularly detained without proper cause, subjected to fear and intimidation, have their homes and property violated, are beaten, sexually abused, stigmatised and discriminated against precisely because of their ethnic identity. The vast majority of the victims of these despicable acts by the Immigration Department did nothing wrong. They are not illegal immigrants. Their only crime was “not having papers”, having a Haitian sounding name, or looking “too Haitian”.
We must ask ourselves, how long can police and Immigration officers continue to act like thugs and outlaws before sparking a large-scale violent 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 – just look at what is happening today worldwide.
It should not be necessary to warn Bahamians who are paying close attention to global events: It is only a matter of time before we reap what we sow. And maybe that’s for the best – perhaps civil unrest, rioting and looting is exactly what we deserve as penance for our shameful silence and cowardly acceptance of regular official atrocities. Perhaps that is the only way we will learn to face up to our demons and confront the sordid reality of our entrenched culture of victimisation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Those among us who can admit - first and foremost to themselves – that they are ashamed of the way in which we have condoned and facilitated official violence and brutality for decades, because it was socially and politically expedient to do so, can join together as a force dedicated to speaking truth to power and advocating for meaningful change.
We could start by acknowledging we have a serious problem and that most of us have been complicit in its perpetuation. When asked about police brutality last year, former Commissioner of Police Anthony Ferguson said officers who abuse their power are a reflection of failed parenting. Officers are recruited from the Bahamian populous, and the public must realise that “you only gone get what you give us”, he said. The first step, then, is simply to look in the mirror and ask some hard questions about what we find there.
Step Two must involve a commitment to something that has been sorely lacking in our public education system – a syllabus that ensures every young Bahamian understands their rights and freedoms under the Constitution. The next step is to place pressure on the government to ensure official violence carries real punishment for the officers in every case, and that those who expose it are respected, heeded and protected.
Sadly, FNM administrations have 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 recent 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 two years in office. In addition, public prosecutors and judges must stop turning a deaf ear to the hundreds of accused persons, from diverse backgrounds, neighbourhoods and 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 dismissed as falsehoods.
Finally, PM Minnis and Ministers Dames and Johnson 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 don’t 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!