You’re on tape: Constable Yasa Amerat wearing a body-worn video camera in London, last week. They help reduce complaints against police. Bermuda’s armed police already use them and there are plans to have them used by other, unarmed officers.  *Photo supplied
You’re on tape: Constable Yasa Amerat wearing a body-worn video camera in London, last week. They help reduce complaints against police. Bermuda’s armed police already use them and there are plans to have them used by other, unarmed officers. *Photo supplied
<
1
2
>

A new report sheds fresh light on the racism that plagues our justice system.

The study highlights inherent bias in the way blacks are treated compared to whites in the application of our drug laws. And it applies not only to police stops but also conviction rates.

Could arming more cops with video cameras heighten accountability and reduce real and perceived incidences of racial discrimination?

Statistician Cordell Riley thinks so. He is a member of the Cannabis Reform Collaborative (CRC) that wrote the report and is also with CURB.

Armed police on the island are already outfitted with cameras, and plans are afoot to broaden their deployment to unarmed officers, a spokesman told us yesterday.

The CRC report outlines Bermuda’s history of racism and specifically how such discrimination is reflected in drug enforcement on the island. Given that history, the collaborative suggests if government overhauls Bermuda’s cannabis policy, then licences allowing for the growth and sale of cannabis should be given solely to those with a drug conviction on their record. Such licences should be granted free of charge, according to the report. 

The proposal is a form of redress, a way of fixing historical wrongs. The question remains: Will it find support? 


If you smoke weed, it pays to be white

The enforcement of drug laws in Bermuda is inherently racist, according to a recent report published by the Cannabis Reform Collaborative (CRC).

The report, made public late last week, says the “criminalization of cannabis has been paralleled with disparity along racial lines in terms of enforcement, sentencing, incarceration and related health issues, all of which contribute greatly to the societal challenges of structural racism.”

The group found evidence that the demand for cannabis on the island is non-discriminatory; black and white people alike smoke weed. But blacks bear the brunt of the possession charges, according to the group, which culled statistics from the Department for National Drug Control, while whites are far less likely to be charged with a cannabis offence. Blacks are by far more likely to feel the negative effects of the cannabis prohibition, disproportionate to the size of the population, according to the report.

The CRC was tasked by government to study cannabis policy and submit recommendations, which the group did last month.

There is, according to the CRC report, evidence of racial profiling in police stop-and-search statistics. In 2011, according to the group, 17,000 stop and searches were made, a number which has “dropped considerably” in recent years. Of those stopped and searched, 90 per cent were male and 85 per cent were black. Two thirds were between the ages of 18 and 36, meaning every black male in that age group could have been stopped and searched four times in 2011.

Recommendation

“Whites know they are less likely to get stopped,” said Cordell Riley, who is a statistician by trade and who served as a member of the CRC. “The usage of drugs is pretty much even. So if the usage is even, how come there is disparity in terms of who gets caught?”

In perhaps the group’s most intriguing recommendation, the CRC suggests that if the cannabis laws are to be overhauled, then serious thought should be given to granting free cannabis cultivating and trading licences, for a period of up to five years, solely to those who have a drug conviction on their record. 

That move would repair some of the damage done by the past policy and the unfair enforcement of such policy, according to the CRC.

“Why not give them exclusive rights to grow, cultivate and sell?” asked Mr Riley, who also serves as a member of CURB. “Then they have an opportunity to financially gain from something.”

One solution, he said, that could reduce the problem is requiring all police to wear video cameras. That, he said, would reduce complaints filed against police and could curb police behaviour, since it records everything “including the initial reason behind why you are stopping someone in the first place.”

“The thing about the CRC report is that whether you decriminalize or legalize you still haven’t dealt with the laws on the books that disproportionately affect blacks and black males in particular,” he said. “The inherent racism is likely to remain.”

Some police already carry tasers that are fitted with cameras, according to Commissioner Michael DeSilva. Armed police are currently using such devices, which are similar to those being piloted by Metropolitan Police in London. The commissioner said police wear the cameras in order to “enhance the collection of evidence, reduce complaints, provide individual accountability and improve the quality of our interactions with the public”.

Body-worn cameras

The plan is to expand the use of cameras with unarmed officers at some point, said Mr DeSilva. 

Use of body-worn cameras is becoming increasingly popular in police departments across the US, including in New York City, Las Vegas and Oakland.  There is some evidence that the presence of the body cams effects law enforcement behaviour. In Rialto, California, a year after police began to wear cameras, the use of force by the police there fell 60 per cent and complaints against officers dropped by more than 80 per cent, according to the BBC.

Gang violence

Another way to grapple with the problem of structural racism, said Mr Riley, would be the repeal of the so-called Section 315F, which allows police to stop and search without probable cause under certain circumstances. Section 315F was enacted to combat rising gun and gang violence. Repealing it would be a step in the right direction, he said.

“The repeal of that is not going to prevent police from doing due diligence,” he said.

There, the commissioner disagreed with Mr Riley. He said the police use of this power has “always been proportionate to the threat Bermuda is facing.”

When shootings increased in 2009, so did stop-and-searches. When shootings decreased, so did stop and searches. Currently the police use of stop-and-searches, said Mr DeSilva, is at the same level as it was before gang violence erupted on the island.

“This correlation tends to support the conclusion that the proportionate use of 315F has contributed, at least in part, to the overall decline (in crime),” he said. “And there is no doubt in my mind that it has saved lives in our island over the last four years.”