Several evenings ago, I sat as a passenger in a car traveling on the island’s most northern road. My boyfriend was driving, and two of his friends accompanied us. We had taken a road trip to Portland so my boyfriend could conduct some business. It was about 11:00 pm and the moon was almost full so the light on the ocean made the cresting waves glow silver and a slight breeze blew, tossing the tree branches around gently. It was one of those nights; I was both awed by the beauty and rendered in a state of peace from it.
We rounded a corner, however, and this was all shattered. We came upon a police check. There were about three police cars and I’m guessing about a dozen police officers, all different ranks: a chief in the khaki uniform, the guys in the navy blue tactical suit with the knee pads and rifles and what I believe are the ‘regular’, street cops in the striped shirt and navy pants.
an officer waved us to the side of the road and my boyfriend immediately switched on the roof light and rolled down all the windows. This pleased the officer: “I like how you are co-operating,” he said. There were a couple other cars pulled over being searched as we rolled to a stop. The young officer, who was holding his cell phone and using it as a flash light, shone it in the car and asked: “anything to declare?” My boyfriend gave his standard answer: “No sir, I am a computer engineer.”
I have been a passenger many times now in cars that have been pulled over and subjected to this “routine” search. This question is apparently meant to refer to anything illegal- drugs or guns- and is asked in the hope that the driver is given the chance to be honest, thus paving the way for a more smooth interaction. These stops are a routine part of the police’s strategy, I’ve been told.
I thought we would be told to go on our way at that point, but the young officer asked my boyfriend to step out of the car. He complied. Then, the officer asked if he could search his person. The sense of injustice and indignation rose up in me. Most Jamaicans, my boyfriend included, are law-abiding citizens. However, given the crime rates (more than 1,000 people murdered in 2014) and the violent culture, the symbolic authority granted to the police is weighted more heavily in their favour.
I wonder what would happen if someone were to indicate that they declined to be searched. This is a right provided in the Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (which was modeled in part on Canada’s), but I suspect it would not go over too well.
Nevertheless, my boyfriend was then patted down, as were the two others. Then he was asked to show his insurance papers and the entire car searched. I was asked to please get out of the car, Miss, but was not searched. The whole time I felt tears welling up in my eyes, perhaps fueled by my privileged upbringing in peaceful countries in which this type of search would be met with outrage and likely resistance. But my boyfriend complied politely, and as is usually the case, attracted the interest of the police officers with his ability to provide and fix computers.
It was windy and chilly. The entire time this was occurring, we were being watched intently by a tactical officer holding a rifle. I have yet to be accustomed to this experience and I doubt I ever will be. We were finally permitted to get back in the car and drive away. No one said much of anything; for them it was normal. I guess as a Jamaican citizen, you learn early on how to behave in these types of interactions so as to avoid trouble. These individual officers in this particular interaction were doing nothing but acting respectfully while simply doing their job. But as a foreigner from a country in which I enjoy many comparative privileges, I could not help but feel sad.