Belizeans know that poverty and unequal distribution of wealth are causing unbearable pressure on certain sections of our society. Every five years or so we go to the polls, hoping that the party that succeeds to form the government has the formula to make things better for poorer Belizeans. It has never worked out for us, but our hope for a better tomorrow remains very much alive.
We know the drug trade has the pull of a magnet for some of our people, our young males especially, and we know how dangerous that illegal business is. Homicide is one of the top five causes of death in countries that lie between the cocaine producers in South America, and the main consumers of the product, in the USA.
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico are intermediate destinations for cocaine being shipped from South America. Wherever the cocaine stops, there is bloodshed, as rival gangs and corrupted officials try to get their hands on the lucrative, illegal product.
Belizeans understand that we have serious problems with poverty, inequality, and the drug trade, but we don’t accept those evils as an excuse for murder. We expect our authorities to work hard to prevent this crime, and when it occurs we expect justice.
The Police Department, under Commissioner Chester Williams, has taken a proactive approach to cut down the incidence of murder. This is laudable. When he took office several months ago, Commissioner Williams said his goals were to improve the relationship between the police and the public, put pressure on rogue cop behavior, increase intervention in domestic disputes, and curb excessive drinking, especially at nightclubs.
In spite of his efforts, Belize just witnessed one of the most murderous months in our history. The Belize Crime Observatory recorded 18 murders in June this year. The Commissioner has pointed out that the murders did not expose weaknesses in the strategy of his leadership. He disputed the opinion of the Crime Observatory that most of the murders were gang-related. The Commissioner said that most of the murders were of the kind that the police have no control over, and he insisted that gang violence is down since the year began.
We think the Commissioner is working very hard to get the job done, but the pressure of the job, exacerbated by too many undisciplined “rogue” cops in his department, got to him recently. He is normally a man who is careful in his speech, but of late he has spoken loosely.
Most of us believe that if our justice system was more effective, we would not see so many violent crimes in our country. Our murder rate is one of the worst in the world and, if we base efficiency on numbers, our justice system is one of the worst also, with less than one in ten cases in the country being solved.
Almost all the blame for the failure of the justice system falls on the shoulders of the Police Department. In the book, Like Bush Fire – A Study on Male Participation and Violence in Urban Belize, which is based on the research efforts of Dr. Herbert Gayle, Dr. Virginia Hampton, and Nelma Mortis, MSc, they list police deficiencies as the number one reason for the failure of cases in court.
The authors list poor investigation, poor training of police officers, overburden of some critical police officers, cases deliberately corrupted by experienced officers to ensure that they fail, loose gathering of evidence in many cases, poor case preparation, lateness to crime scenes which allows for contamination by the time police arrive to do their work, sites deliberately contaminated by cops, scared witnesses, and lack of forensic capacity, as the main culprits in our deficient system.
If we look at this list closely, we can divide the blame among poor initiative by police, corruption in the Police Department, and failure of the state.
A poll of citizens may show widespread public belief that the education requirement to join the police force is too low, a primary school certificate being sufficient at this time. However, we must note that many of the police heroes of yore did not have a high school certificate. Many of the functions of the Police Department do not call for a doctorate. There are areas of policing that call for greater educational skills, crime scenes processing and case preparation, for example, but on the beat itself a higher level of education may not be necessary.
The authors’ observations suggest that lack of character is the primary factor that is dragging down the effectiveness of the department. That is what we understand when we read the report’s references to experienced officers corrupting cases to ensure they fail, and rogue cops contaminating evidence.
The government is also prominent in the police’s failure. It is the government that must ensure that officers are properly trained, that we have the forensic capacity to solve crimes, and that people don’t lose so much faith in the system that they become afraid to testify in court.
The government, to improve the justice system, has made one significant change, that being the removal of trial by jury in highly charged cases. No statistics have been produced on trial without jury, but the perception is that we get more convictions in this type of trial.
In all this disaster that has overcome us, the third factor in the justice system — the lawyers, has never been scrutinized by our political leaders, or media houses in the country. Indeed, they are not even discussed by callers to the many talk shows in our country.
They, the lawyers, also blame the police for our failures. They, the lawyers, brag about their acquittal rates, and they are quick to find loopholes in the law to overturn any failure they have in court. They accuse us of being two-faced because we clamor for the state to get more convictions (concern for the national good), but as individuals we run to them to get our loved ones off the hook when they get into trouble (human weakness).
Lawyers are above the fray in Belize, sacred cows, but one leader in the Caribbean who is as horrified by the havoc in his country as we are in ours, has thrown an accusation their way. We note his comment not to interfere in the internals of his country, but to point out that in a democratic state no highly placed individual or group should be above scrutiny.
Chester Sambrano, in a July 28, 2019 story in The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian (online edition, www.guardian.co.tt), said that T & T president, Dr. Keith Rowley, leveled “criticism in the direction of the Judiciary”, charging that they have “sympathy for criminals.”
He said that Rowley, speaking three days before “a special sitting of Parliament to debate the Bail Amendment Bill … said the decision