Independent oversight of police complaints must be established

An independent police complaints authority is a key mechanism in accountable and transparent policing in a democracy and in the national interest and should be given urgent legislative priority.

Widely publicized allegations of police brutality in recent weeks have re-ignited discussion on the use of force by Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) officers, and the extent to which the public can have a reasonable degree of confidence in the investigation of complaints against officers given that investigations are conducted by the force and not by an independent civilian body.

Attorney General Carl Bethel, during the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of The Bahamas in January 2018, said: “The government acknowledges that there are deficiencies in the complaints and corruption branch of the police due to a lack of independent oversight.”

Bethel advised the UN review body that the government was reviewing the branch as part of its anti-corruption agenda. The public has not been advised of the progress or outcome of that review.

Officers of the police force give an invaluable service to our nation, the importance of which cannot be overstated. The pressures and dangers of policing are immense and most of our officers perform valiantly and with integrity.

But when an officer acts outside the law in the use of force, violates one’s human and constitutional rights and subjects persons to the very violence and intimidation from which officers are sworn to protect them, the rule of law necessitates that full accountability and transparency be the standard in each and every complaint of brutality and misconduct.

According to Dr. Graham Smith of the University of Manchester UK School of Law, the purpose of independent police complaint systems is to protect against a culture of impunity, protect human rights, address the grievance of a complainant, and to facilitate and demonstrate responsiveness to a complainant.

Over the years, countries have strengthened these systems by giving their independent police complaint bodies investigative powers in law where they were previously restricted to the evaluation of completed complaint investigations.

The Bahamas trails CARICOM countries and Commonwealth jurisdictions around the world in the establishment of an independent investigative body for police complaints, wherein the case of relevant Caribbean countries, such authorities have existed for over a decade at minimum.

Complaints against RBPF officers increased by 24 percent last year, with a total of 197 complaints lodged in 2017 versus 245 lodged in 2018, according to RBPF statistics. In 2017, 57 percent of complaint investigations were completed, while only 28 percent of investigations were completed in 2018.

The complaints and corruption branch, in the meantime, is the least funded branch of the force according to the 2019/2020 budget, which posts for it a line item allocation of $8,075, a derisory sum given that this branch is currently the nation’s sole investigative body for complaints against police officers.

Law and order cannot be easily maintained if the public does not trust the police. If justice is not both done and seen to be done in incidents of alleged police brutality and misconduct, building widespread public trust in law enforcement is an inconceivable effort. Good officers suffer as a result, as does the nation at large.

This administration should report to the public on the outcome of its review of the complaints and corruption branch and should move expeditiously to legislate the independent oversight it acknowledges is needed.

We urge the government to ensure that any independent police complaint authority established in The Bahamas be consistent with those in other jurisdictions, wherein no member of such an authority can be attached to any branch of the police force.

We recommend that the Police Act be amended, consistent with international standards to expressly govern the use of force by police officers and to codify disciplinary offenses thereto.

And given the traumas and extreme pressures of policing, we recommend that the RBPF institute regular mental health and wellness checks for officers so as to provide support where needed and to identify officers who may be at high risk of untamed aggression or unlawful use of force in the line of duty.

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