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Killing Me Softly, as I Stand in Your Ground: Victim-Profiling in Jamaica

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The disturbing shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida has generated widespread international attention and condemnation, as well as personal indignation by American minorities and youths in particular.

The similarly gratuitous and tragic extrajudicial death of a promising, law-abiding, unarmed black youth in an affluent Kingston suburb, however, has largely escaped public notice outside Jamaica. And yet, both deaths can be traced to essentially the same factors.

Urban violence is nothing new in Jamaica -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- especially in lower-class neighborhoods. But the fact that members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) in Kingston killed 21 individuals within the first six days of March alone -- including one 13-year old girl -- is troubling.

Most of these casualties were quickly labelled as undesirable members of society (and therefore expendable), and innocent victims such as Nikita Cameron (the child in question) are but unfortunate casualties of the crossfire.

Wrongful death is unavoidable collateral damage in the war against crime.

Indeed, it seems as if the majority of the public accepted such casualties as the price to pay for law-and-order, especially in Jamaica.

The recent police killing of 16-year-old Vanessa Kirkland, however, has made people pause and consider the current state of Jamaican insecurity: An honor roll student on her way to a party with friends in an affluent part of Kingston, she had the misfortune of being in a vehicle identified as a possible match to one that had fled the scene of a mobile phone robbery. Once sighted, the police followed the car to the party, surrounded it and essentially opened fire on its passengers before they could exit. The result was six teenagers shot, one of them (Ms. Kirkland) killed.

Police officers claimed imminent personal danger and self-defense. There were no weapons found, nor was there any apparent confrontation between the authorities and the occupants of the vehicle. No arrests have been made.

George Zimmerman, in Florida, was an armed neighborhood watchman with no official connection to the city's Police Department -- though a kindred spirit and an aspiring shade (however faint) of the Thin Blue Line. He claimed self-defense.

He has been exculpated for having pursued a young man for no apparent reason, for having scared him into a confrontation, and for eventually considering himself to be in enough imminent personal danger to pull the trigger of his gun.

The policemen who killed Ms. Kirkland are even less accountable than Mr. Zimmerman: they were (however badly) doing their job.

But to be fair, the JCF has lost nearly 50 officers in the line of duty in the last six years. You would expect them to be somewhat testy and concerned for their well being. They seem to have been scared into a shoot-now-and-ask-questions-later mindset.

Accordingly, the use of deadly force by JCF officers is one of the highest in the world. Impunity is the norm. Convictions are rare. Amnesty International has reported that of the 2,220 fatal police shootings between 2000 and 2010 in Jamaica, only two officers have been convicted. Ms. Kirkland's death has prompted an external review of police conduct and, most importantly, training.

As in most developing countries, the JCF lacks adequate training in community patrolling and is over-trained in paramilitary interventions.

In both the Kirkland and Martin cases, the issues that are the most troubling are the possible socio-racial profiling used to zero-in on alleged criminals and the impunity of their killers.

Undoubtedly no one wants to be mistaken for a criminal just by the way they look (race, clothing, age), the places they frequent (a prosperous/impoverished neighborhood), or their choice of transportation (an expensive/broken-down car, the subway, on foot, etc.) -- indeed, where can you be safe?

In an urban world where the vast majority of people are not middle age, white, conservative and affluent, it seems we are all possible criminals. The civil forces responsible for public order deal mostly with perpetrators of crimes, not their victims (that is usually the role of the courts). Their view of society is therefore myopic.

Policing is not easy. It is also dangerous. Besides more education and counseling, direct accountability and permanent oversight are needed in order to change a one-size-fits-all type of police mentality when it comes to people.

My father told me once, "Be careful if the only tool you have to deal with life is a hammer: every situation will look like a nail."