Jamaica is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. The Jamaica Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Andrew Michael Holness, held 48 of the 63 seats in the House of Representatives. International and local election observers deemed the elections on September 3, 2020, to be transparent, free, fair, and generally peaceful.
The Ministry of National Security is the ministerial home of the Jamaica Defense Force and directs policy of the security forces. The prime minister has authority over the Jamaican Defense Board and as chairman of the board has responsibility for defense-related matters including command, discipline, and administration. He is the de facto minister of defense. The Jamaica Constabulary Force is the country’s police force. It has primary responsibility for internal security and has units for community policing, special response, intelligence gathering, and internal affairs. When the prime minister and Parliament declare a state of emergency, the Jamaica Defense Force has arrest authority and operational partnership alongside the Jamaica Constabulary Force. The Passport, Immigration, and Citizenship Agency has responsibility for migration. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings by government security forces; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; arbitrary arrest and detention; significant government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; and the existence of a law criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although the government did not enforce the law during the year.
The government took some steps to investigate and prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. Nonetheless, there were credible reports that some officials alleged to have committed human rights abuses were not subject to full and swift accountability. The government did not effectively implement the law on corruption. There were numerous credible allegations of government corruption, and there were officials who sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were numerous reports during the year that government security forces committed arbitrary and unlawful killings, and there were hundreds of complaints of abuse and wrongful harm. The Jamaica Constabulary Force was cited in most of the reports, in its roles both as an independent agency and as part of joint military-police activity. There were several reported incidents involving the Jamaica Defense Force. Overall, the total number of fatalities involving security forces, justifiable or otherwise, increased, with 123 reports as of December 9. Police fatally shot a taxi driver in September after he failed to obey an order to stop. A passenger was wounded in the same event, which drew significant community protests. In 2020 the government reported 115 fatal shooting incidents and 92 nonfatal shooting incidents involving security forces, an increase from the number of incidents reported in 2019.
Charges against members of the security forces took years to process, primarily due to investigatory backlogs, trial delays, and appellate measures. While the country continued to reduce the court case backlog, the COVID-19 global pandemic stymied progress in some courts. Numerous cases awaited prosecution.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution prohibits such practices, although there is no definition of torture in the law. There were allegations of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment of individuals in police custody and in correctional facilities. The Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) investigated reports of alleged abuse committed by police and prison officials. Most reports to INDECOM described intimidation, excessive physical force in restraint, and restricted access to medical treatment. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern regarding underreporting by victims, particularly among the vulnerable or persons with mental disabilities. Rapes were occasionally perpetrated by security forces.
INDECOM investigated actions by members of the security forces and other state agents that resulted in death, injury, or the abuse of civil rights. As of December, INDECOM was investigating 1,002 complaints received during the year of the abuse of power by police, including wrongful deaths, assaults, and mistreatment. INDECOM forwarded its recommendations to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which determined whether police should be charged. INDECOM remained one of the few external and independent oversight commissions that monitored security forces. INDECOM reported a backlog in cases due to significant delays in obtaining DNA, ballistics, and chemistry reports from other government agencies.
Cases against security forces were infrequently recommended for criminal trial and often saw substantial procedural delays. Many cases did not go to trial due to continued delays in court and plea hearings.
There were reports of unlawful arrests for which officers were not punished or disciplined. The government had procedures for investigating complaints of unlawful behavior by security forces, including investigations by INDECOM and the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s Inspectorate and Professional Standards Oversight Bureau, but the government did not always use these procedures. Citizens enjoyed effective legal representation in criminal proceedings and successfully challenged unlawful arrests and detentions within the court system. Civil society organizations such as Jamaicans for Justice conducted training for police recruits in human rights protections.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention but allows arrest if there is “reasonable suspicion of [a person] having committed or … about to commit a criminal offense.” The law provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, and the government generally observed these requirements. Abuses arose, however, because police regularly ignored the “reasonable suspicion” requirement, arraignment procedures were very slow, and some communities operated as zones of special operations (ZOSOs) for most of the year.
The country suffered from high levels of homicide, crime, and violence. The declaration of a state of emergency (SOE) grants the police and military the ability to search, seize, and arrest citizens without a warrant, although no SOEs were declared during the year. The prime minister may declare an SOE for 14 days or fewer; extensions require parliamentary approval. Additionally, the government may identify ZOSOs, which confer to security forces some additional detention authorities, such as are found in SOEs. During the year the prime minister declared or extended five ZOSOs, which the government viewed as necessary to reduce crime and violence. High detention rates were a concern, and arbitrary and lengthy detentions took place in ZOSOs. Very few of these detentions resulted in charges.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Police may arrest without a warrant when a felony, treason, or breach of the peace is committed or attempted in the officer’s presence. Following an arrest, the officer is required to inform the suspect of the offense(s) for which the individual was arrested.
An officer may execute a warrant that is lawfully issued by a judge or justice of the peace without being in possession of the warrant. The officer must produce the warrant as soon as practical after the arrest if the suspect requests it. The decision to charge or release must be made within 48 hours, although a judge or justice of the peace may extend the period of custody.
Security forces did not always follow these official procedures. According to government officials and civil society, public perception was that police could make arrests regardless of judicial authorization.
There were reports of arrests and prolonged periods of detention in which police did not inform the suspect of the official charges. There were multiple reports that detainees did not have access to legal counsel and that apprehended suspects could not notify family members. Every person charged with an offense is entitled to consideration for bail, although those charged with murder, treason, or other crimes punishable by imprisonment may be denied bail on “substantial grounds” that they would fail to surrender to authorities or would commit another offense while on bail. The procedure lent itself to low-level corruption in which police would accept bribes to forgo an arrest.
Arbitrary Arrest: Most cases of arbitrary detention were in the parishes (counties) of St. James and St. Catherine. The government declared ZOSOs and deployed the military to these areas to support police. Under these orders, security forces carried out wide-ranging campaigns of detention and incarceration in attempts to contain violence. There were few official investigations or prosecutions of security force members involved in arbitrary arrests.
Pretrial Detention: Lockups are intended for short-term detentions of 48 hours or less, but often the government held suspects in these facilities without charge or awaiting trial for much longer periods. A lack of administrative follow-through after an arrest created situations where persons were incarcerated without any accompanying paperwork. In some cases – days, weeks, months, or years later – authorities could not ascertain the reason for the arrest.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. A backlog of criminal cases in most courts, however, led to the denial of a fair public trial for thousands of citizens. Criminal proceedings sometimes extended for years. Cases were delayed primarily due to incomplete files and parties, witnesses, attorneys, or investigating officers failing to appear.
The criminal courts decreased the court case backlog, especially at the parish court level. The case clearance rate for the second quarter of the year was that for every 100 cases that entered the courts, 111 were cleared.
Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the courts were unable to hold jury trials, contributing to the low murder conviction rate of 8.3 percent in the first quarter of the year. During the year courts continued their efforts to address the court case backlog by using virtual hearings, a new electronic case management system, and promoting alternative dispute resolution methods.
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference, the law gives broad powers of search and seizure to security personnel. The law allows warrantless searches of a person, vehicle, ship, or boat if a police officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. On occasion police were accused of conducting searches without warrants or reasonable suspicion.
In the areas with ZOSOs and SOEs, government security forces took biometrics from temporarily detained persons. The Office of the Public Defender and civil society organizations challenged this practice, arguing that retaining the information and failing to delete it after police released the detained person effectively criminalized persons who subsequently were not charged. Security forces detained wide swaths of the population in ZOSOs and SOEs under broad arrest authorities.