BELIZE CITY, Wed. Jan. 21, 2015–In mid-July 2014, the Belize Police Department began enforcing the so-called “quality-of-life” crimes program in Belize City. By September, the police high command boasted to the media that about 800 arrests for these so called quality-of-life crimes were made, that it linked to its operation called “Not in My City.”
The question that no one asked at the time was, at what cost to the society?
The reports, however, of police excesses and outright abuse of citizens’ basic and constitutional rights in the enforcements of these petty minor offences, have now gotten a lot of attention in the media.
And at the judicial level, the surge in arrests for quality-of-life crimes has been overwhelming the Belize City Magistrate’s Courts and will create a backlog for serious cases for months, just as the court system is seeking new ways to address its backlog of cases and break the back of its years-of-adjournment culture.
In some of the cases, a magistrate, after reading the charges, would say to the person in front of her, “Caution and dismissed,” then mutter, as if speaking to himself or herself, “A waste of the court’s time.”
Because many of the police corporals and sergeants who are the officers-in-charge at police precincts are reluctant to use their discretion, and so operate strictly according to the letter of the law, out of ignorance or spite, many citizens have been deprived of their liberty and locked down in the reeking “piss-house,” sometimes for a full 48 hours.
Last night, Amandala reporter Kareem Clarke was arrested and deprived of his liberty for almost 12 hours for the simple transgression, described in legal jargon, of “causing a bicycle to go contrary to the flow of traffic,” meaning: riding up-stop.
After he left work around 9:00 p.m., Clarke felt hungry and decided to take a quick ride on his bicycle to buy a burger at the hotdog stands on Regent Street, in the vicinity of the Swing Bridge.
According to how the traffic flows, in relation to where his house is located, he would have had to ride south on West Canal, then turn east on Orange Street Bridge, turn south on Albert Street and ride to King Street, then turn into Regent Street and ride north toward the Swing Bridge.
Realizing that after 9:00 p.m., the streets of the city are almost deserted, Clarke decided to make the quick zip up Regent Street.
He was intercepted by a police mobile patrol unit travelling down Regent Street. He explained to them as politely as he could that he lives right across the bridge on Regent Street. He had just put down his work bag with his identification documents, including an Amandala Press pass, he told them.
The policemen escorted him to his home so that he could properly identify himself, but that was not enough. They just had to arrest him and take him to Precinct 1, at the corner of Kut and Euphrates Avenues.
From Precinct 1, he was taken to the Queen Street Police Station for an all-nighter, compliments of the Officer-in-Charge at Precinct 1. He was not released until sometime around 8:00 a.m. this morning, Wednesday.
Not only had the police deprived Clark of his freedom all night for a very insignificant misdemeanor, but when he got his bicycle back from the station, he found that his $13 light that was on his bicycle had been stolen.
Who steals from police stations? One could surmise that it is very likely that an individual who works at such a police station might have stolen his light.
Why can’t the police simply give people who commit these so-called “quality-of-life” offenses a simple summons, to pay the fine, and if they fail to pay, then they would be summoned to court, as is done for those who receive traffic tickets.
That would save the courts a lot of time, and would not cause the terrible inconvenience and waste of countless man-hours for a very simple offense by honest, hard-working people.
And what is the fine? Is $35-$50 dollars worth all the person’s time spent at the police station and in court, the time the police spend booking the person, the police’s time spent in court, and the poor magistrate’s time, as if he or she has any time to waste with these “poco-tiempo” charges?
Room should be made for some discretion and commonsense to be exercised in the process. The police should stop depriving citizens of their liberty for those petty offences, such as riding a bicycle without a light or bell, or riding up stop, and so on, because many real, terrible crimes are being committed, which the police should spend their time trying to prevent, or solve.
Keeping a person in the infamous “pisshouse” all night, just for riding up-stop? For God’s sake, can’t our police officers have some sense, even if the politicians who make these stupid laws appear not to have any?