Editorials

Community relations and law enforcement

Communities rely on police to protect them from crime and injustice. The police in turn, rely on community support and cooperation.

In the performance of their duties, police officers are required to respect individual human rights as the authority given to law enforcement officers does not trump the human rights of individuals.

Law enforcement officers must avoid discriminatory or selective enforcement practices as such practices invariably reduce the faith and trust of the community in the officers and the agencies and institutions they represent.

Trust and respect between law enforcement and the public are essential for peaceful communities.

When trust is reduced or lost, there is always a related loss in the level of support that law enforcement will receive from the public.

The goal is to strike the right balance between law enforcement doing its job and preserving individual rights.

The public’s roles in the maintenance of a peaceful, lawful society are many: respecting and obeying the law; respecting the rights, beliefs and opinions of others; cooperating and providing information and assistance to the police in their investigation of a crime; testifying in court when called upon to do so; and serving on juries when called upon to do so.

The cooperative relationship between the Bahamian public and its law enforcement community became strained following the intrusion of the illicit drug traffic in the country beginning as early as the 1970s.

In the ensuing years and decades, some law enforcement officers, whether police, defense force, or customs and immigration, compromised their reputations; in some instances their careers were cut short because of their association with unlawful activities. Thus began negative perceptions of law enforcement officers specifically and of authority generally in The Bahamas.

At the same time, otherwise law abiding citizens were corrupted by the influence of financial gains from their engagement in or support of trafficking of illicit goods including but not restricted to controlled narcotic drugs. The illegal traffic of weapons and subsequently of humans followed.

Increased crime led to increased witness intimidation which in turn reduced the willingness of some to provide information on crime to law enforcement officers or to testify truthfully and completely on their knowledge of a crime.

Negative perceptions of authority deepened when web shop gambling was legalized in 2013, notwithstanding that the proposal for legalization was rejected by voters in a referendum. Even more harmful was the subsequent decision by the government to limit licenses to numbers houses to only previously illegal operators.

Perhaps most tragic has been the weakening of the Bahamian family unit and of the close knit communities which typified earlier times in The Bahamas as increased numbers of citizens enriched themselves through engagement in illegal activities.

These behaviors have conspired to make law enforcement more difficult and uncertain.

Today, social media is replete with commentary and videos which depict a growing disrespect by ordinary people, often school-aged youth, for authority, including law enforcement officers.

This trend toward lawlessness and disorder and of loss of respect for the law and for officers of the law can only be addressed by increased dialogue between law enforcement and the community to identify community problems and implement solutions that serve neighborhoods.

And, parents must instill some basic norms in their children regarding their relationship with law enforcement. These include:

• Accepting that law enforcement officers place their lives at risk to protect citizens and we should support them;

• Not interfering with law enforcement officers while they are carrying out official duties;

• Not lying or giving false information to a law enforcement officer; and

• Sharing useful information that can assist in preventing or detecting crime with law enforcement officers.

We recognize that sometimes, individuals feel put upon by the manner of investigating law enforcement officers.

Others believe that they were treated unfairly in an investigation or during an arrest.

Members of the public have the right in such circumstances to politely assert their rights. But all should remember that being rude and offensive is never helpful.

In any event such arguments are for the courtroom, not the street.

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