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Copyright 1998 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Police and Women Do Not a Pretty Picture Make
By Neville Johnson, IPS, 12 June 1998
KINGSTON, Jun 12 (IPS) - If a picture is worth a thousand words then the photograph of the woman splashed across the front page of one of the major dailies here clad in her underwear and a T-shirt, seemingly being accosted by a policeman must have told quite a story.
In fact, there were several versions of the story, ranging from the fact that the male officer had stripped the woman during a fracas, to the fact that she had hurriedly undressed in an effort to avoid being arrested for the illegal possession of a firearm.
The whole country was seemingly up in arms after that picture was published, and the police were once again the villain. But for women like 19-year-old Monica Williams who live in inner city communities, this is a picture which they have seen over and over again.
"I have seen in this community policemen kick and box several women and nothing come out of it. It is not just now that these things are taking place. My sister was shot and killed by a policeman's bullet. My mother has been kicked and boxed. Our house has been ransacked by policemen without having any respect for our privacy. It takes place in every inner city community. They have no respect for women," she says.
Twenty-six-year-old Marvette Richards who lives in Matthews Lane has had similar experiences. She says she has had several physical encounters with police officers. She has also seen her friends suffer at the hands of police officers who have physically abused them.
"The police have no respect for women, especially those women from the inner city. We are the victims of so many abuses by the police that we can't even count the amount of times that these incidents take police," she says.
"They come into the (community) and... they pull us, they kick us sometimes, and even fire shots at us. We need to get rid of the bad weeds and develop a disciplined police force," adds 29- year- old Cynthia Crossdale of Olympic Gardens, another inner-city community.
And according to coordinator of the Association of Women's Organisations in Jamaica (AWOJA), Beverley Cooper-Bertram, the excessive use of force by the Jamaican police, especially against women, is an infringement of women's basic rights and should not be allowed to continue unchallenged.
"It does not matter what a person has done she has the right to be free from violence in both a public and a private sphere. The role of the police force is to protect and to serve us, not to abuse us," says Cooper-Bertram.
Unofficial surveys indicate that in 1995 there were 36 cases of police using excessive force against women, including shooting incidents. In 1997, there were 38, and for the first three months of this year, 13, including the shooting to death of two women.
Last year too, 199 persons were killed at the hands of the police. There are some 7,000 police officers here.
There are those who argue that the police officers are products of the society, and the society, in many respects, is a violent one. After all in 1997, 1,038 persons were murdered here.
But Head of the Police Information Centre (PIC), Jonathan Morrison, says there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that there is an increase in the use of force by police officers.
"We in the police force are not enemies of the people. We know that we have professional responsibility to the people of Jamaica, and I don't think that any of our members will abuse any of our female. They know that their responsibility is to see to it that the women, and the wider society are taken care of in the best possible way," he says.
"The police are here to protect the citizens of this country and not to abuse them. Abusing citizens, especially women, will create social tension which the police do not want. To get rid of the crime and violence is to build a firm and friendly relationship with the public, and our women make up a large part of that society," he adds.
Judy Wedderburn of Women's Media Watch, a non-governmental organisation working to protect the rights of women here, is concerned about the long-term effects of these incidents on the relationship between the police and the society in general.
"If we reach a situation where our women have no confidence in the police as a result of their attitude towards our women, then the level of cooperation which should exist on both sides will not be there, and that will certainly have some negative impact on law and order in the society," she says.
Part of the solution, she adds, is that police officers need to be trained in issues such as conflict resolution.
Crossdale agrees. "I don't see things changing with the police if they are not properly trained in areas that will help them to deal with the public. Something will have to be done to bring some civility to the police force," she says.
Still there are those who argue that the behaviour of the police officers is a spin-off from the days of the Suppression of Crimes Act.
First instituted in 1974, the Act gave the country's security forces extraordinary powers of search and arrest. Searches of premises were conducted without a warrant and without any suspicion of unlawful acts being committed there.
Suspects too could be searched without a warrant on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and could be arrested and held for five days without being formally charged for any crime.
The Act was intended to counter the alarming rise in criminal activities and it was felt that temporary extraordinary powers were required by the security forces in order to regain control over lawless elements.
Critics charge however, that it spawned a generation of security personnel with no regard for human rights and human dignity. The Act was abolished in 1994, but some observers say the bad habits acquired then seem to be still with the force.
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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