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Reneto Adams: From ‘Bad Man Police’ to Police Commissioner?

reneto3“You have to be firm. You have to use some force where it is necessary and you have to know how to use it. Civil society has lost control in Jamaica, so you have to have a firm strong personality [referring to the job of Police Commissioner] who knows strategy and tactic and who knows how to contend with the criminal elements”.

                                       Reneto Adams, Personal Interview with 2004, February 3).

  If Isiaah Laing and Keith ‘Trinity’ Gardener were the ‘bad man police of the 1970s and 1980s onwards, then Reneto de Cordova Valentino Adams is the contemporary manifestation of the ‘badman police’ phenomenon in Jamaica. Typically clad in combat attire, outfitted with helmet, bullet proof vests, high-powered weapons and sporting dark sun shades(see image inset), Adams’ hard-hitting policing style had become legendary. Now with growing momentum from Jamaican citizens, particularly those on social network sites (facebook, twitter) for this controversial former Senior Superintendent of Police, Reneto Adams to be appointed as Police Commissioner, it is important to reflect on what this  tough cop represented during his 35 year tenure in the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and the significance of this abiding interest in him for the top job in the JCF.

 Indeed, in the desperate bid by the state to act forcefully to combat soaring criminality, the Jamaican society has over time experienced the emergence of new kind of ‘brand name’ cop that I prefer to call ‘bad man police’ and with this, a highly-developed culture of intimidating policing and militarism. In order to understand this controversial development, one would have to look through the lens of former Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Reneto DeCordova Valentino Adams and the militaristic police team he once headed, the Crime Management Unit (CMU).  

Reneto Adams & the CMU

In response to intense public pressure in 2002, including widespread accusations from the media, civil society and the business community about its lack of urgency and political will to stop crime, the Jamaican government, led by then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, immediately established the Crime Management Unit (CMU) to tackle rampant criminality. The CMU was a specially designed technical team comprised of a heavy detachment of armed police officers with the authority ‘to move anywhere and anytime throughout the Corporate Area’ (Kingston & St. Andrew) to actively combat criminal gangs on their turf. It had the authority to call on back up personnel from other specialised crime-fighting teams within the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) such as the Special Anti-Crime Task Force (SPACTF), Mobile Reserve and Flying Squad (The Jamaica Gleaner, 2000, November 2). The Jamaican government spent some $J11 million dollars to outfit the unit, including US$100,000 worth of surveillance and other technological equipment (ibid).

Heading the newly-installed Crime Management Unit was the tough-talking, brazen and flamboyant crime-fighter, Senior Superintendent Reneto Valentino de Cordova Adams. Reneto Adams was the ‘cream of the crop’ in Jamaican policing and his courtship and ultimate selection by the state was deliberate and calculated. This is because Reneto Adams had come to embody a particular brand of policeman and policing that has been nurtured in Jamaica since the formation of the Jamaica Constabulary Force more than a century ago in 1865. The JCF was formed immediately following the historic Morant Bay Rebellion in which violent citizen riots were put down by the public hanging of its two prominent leaders (National Heroes – Paul Bogle and George William Gordon). The JCF was, in other words, designed to suppress future ‘threats’ against the governing colonial regime. Commentators argue that the JCF thus appears to have been historically invested it with ‘an overriding principle of profound authoritarianism’ (see Harriot, 2000:43). So, although the Jamaica Constabulary Force today is largely required ‘to serve, protect and reassure the people in Jamaica through the delivery of impartial and professional services’[i], it retains much of the ‘Force’ inherent in its name and it seems to have become obligatory for its members to demonstrate the capacity to carry out sustained attack, if not all out war on criminal elements as intended by the Jamaican State at different instances.

 What is a “Bad Man Police” ?

I draw particular attention to Former Supt. Adams here because he had come to bridge the gap between the capacity ‘to protect and serve’ as well ‘to attack’. Reneto Adams stands out among an exclusive list of popular Jamaican lawmen – such as Keith ‘Trinity’ Gardener, Cornwall ‘Bigga’ Ford, Isiaah Laing and Tony Hewitt,  - who had come to personify the classic prototype of what I call the ‘bad man police’. A ‘bad man’ in generalised usage is an armed civilian combatant, a regular gunslinger, more commonly known as a ‘shotta’ (read as ‘shooter’ or gunman) in Jamaican vernacular. The shotta is heralded in the ghetto as a respected ‘warrior’ and ‘folk hero’ (see Johnson & Soeters, 2008) while the ‘police’ symbolize the state and the rule of law and is charged with stamping out all that the former advocates. I juxtapose these otherwise incongruous terms/personalities – ‘badman police’ – to illustrate and characterise the popularisation and consolidation of a new brand of crime-fighter in the Jamaican context. Despite the deliberate tension and ambivalence the phrase ‘badman police’ engender, I argue that this juxtaposition is appropriate as this new kind of police effectively assumes the characteristics of the ‘bad man’. He attires himself in heavy-duty, military style combat wear, carries high-powered weapons, moves around in a posse of other officers (or join forces with soldiers) and, in the performance of his duty, displays the same kind of aggressiveness and fierceness akin to the ‘bad man’ (gunman).  

reneto4

This psychological and physical stance in the policing function is seen to be indispensable to confronting/ combating and ultimately subduing the ‘bad man’ and maintaining the rule of law. The following remark from one police officer on the beat provides insights into this phenomenon: ‘You can’t listen to Bob Marley when you going to hunt criminals, I have to listen to Bount Killer (dancehall deejay known for violent lyrics). I have to get into the psyche of the bad man. If I don’t, I get killed’ (Personal Communication, December 2007). This ‘kill or be killed’ mentality is no doubt a harsh reality of policing in Jamaica) but these remarks also reflect the paradigmatic shift in the psychology of the cop on patrol. He effectively portrays the attitude and style of the bad man in the attempt to carry out the rule of law. It is this incongruity which I attempt to unmask here. Although when drawn together, the expression ‘bad man police may suggest ‘police-turned-criminal’, it is conceptually distinct from what is usually understood as ‘police criminality’ embodied in the phrase ‘rogue cop’. Instead, I use the designation ‘bad man police’ to refer to cops who combine a healthy respect for the rule of law but are not adverse to employing ‘force majeure’ to bring violators of the law to account.

For example, according to reports in popular media, Keith ‘Trinity’ Gardener was the archetypal ‘street cop’ in the 1970s, becoming the most feared nemesis of politically-factionalized criminal elements who had assumed control of Kingston’s ghettoes during this politically volatile period (Jamaica Gleaner, 2005, March 13).  Meanwhile, so legendary had the temperament and exacting policing carried out by Isaiah Laing become that he was ultimately immortalised in song by Jamaican entertainer, Norman ‘Tiger’ Jackson through the popular lyrical refrain – ‘wha [what] de ‘badman police’ name? …Laing!’ As I said at the outset, if Laing and Trinity were the ‘bad man police of the 1970s and 1980s onwards, then Reneto de Cordova Valentino Adams is the contemporary manifestation of the ‘badman police’ phenomenon.

Reneto- Rise of a Celebrity Cop

Typically clad in combat attire, outfitted with helmet, bullet proof vests, high-powered weapons and sporting dark sun shades(see image inset), Adams’ hard-hitting policing style had become legendary. This tough-talking, flamboyant and media-savvy lawman was renowned for fearlessly disarming criminal gangs and recovering illegal weapons. In fact, his highly publicised success record of ‘cleaning up’ (substantially reducing crime levels) the volatile communities such as Spanish Town and East Kingston in the mid-1990s as well as his ability to drive fear into armed criminals, catapulted Reneto Adams into national attention. His openness with the media, genuine friendliness with members of the public and his mildness of speech and unquestioned integrity had earned him popularity, respect and widespread support from among large segments of the Jamaican population. But his uncompromising approach to policing brought him both popularity and infamy. This model of policing, Reneto Adams declared, had become indispensable in Jamaica as the social institutions that normally regulated society had failed. In my interview with him way back in 2004, he remarked:

The policeman, because of what is happening in the society [mushrooming rates of crime and violence] is not seen anymore as a peace person because he has got now to be carrying along with him into the community M-16s and huge weaponry and not the style that used to accompany a policeman once with his little baton but he is seen now as almost a monster (Personal Interview, 2004, February 3).

Given the nature of crime in Jamaica and the sheer brutality of some murders, it may be fair to argue that both the policeman and the criminal have become the proverbial ‘monster’. Reneto Adams had thus come to symbolise the possibility of genuine ‘public safety’ for many Jamaicans. His ‘badness’ was proof that the rule of law still abound within the society and the criminal was not in control but could be conquered and subdued.  

But the Reneto Adams–led Crime Management Unit was the manifestation of ‘military style policing’. For example, a joint CMU (police) -military trawl for illegal weapons in July 2001 erupted in three days of fierce fighting between gunmen and the security forces. A total of 27 people, including three members of the Security Forces were killed (Jamaica Gleaner, 2001, July 12). The police emerged out of this confrontation with an even more sullied image and a widening gap between itself and the citizens in the targeted communities for crime-fighting.

Although it was to be a permanent, proactive structure with long term goals of intelligence gathering, crime detection and containment and the short-term objective of targeting and disarming criminal gangs across the island, Reneto’ Crime Management Unit was abandoned in 2004. Its uncompromising mode of operation and ‘take no prisoners’ attitude had become increasingly unattractive. Reneto Adams made enemies within his own ranks as many colleague officers felt he was ‘in bed’ with the media as well as from amongst criminal gangs, receiving hundreds of death threats per year. Significantly however, although overlooked and deemed to be justified by many citizens, Reneto’s harsh crime fighting style had ultimately spiralled out of favour with human rights groups, particularly the lobby group Jamaicans for Justice.

 Although the CMU deployed successful criminal detection and apprehension tactics and Reneto Adams was celebrated for his fearlessness and unique ability to flush out and intimidate gangsters, his unit fronted heavy and continuous criticism from the then political opposition (Jamaica Labour Party), influential pundits within the media and the human rights lobby. Indeed, the emerging view of Reneto’s CMU was that its militaristic policing approach, particularly its frequent resort to firepower was unsustainable. The final nail in the CMU’s coffin came after its involvement in several controversial incidents. These included the killing of seven alleged gangsters on March 14, 2001 in Braeton, St. Catherine and four people, including two women, in a house in the district of Crawle, Clarendon. These police shootings ignited intense condemnation from human rights lobby group, Jamaicans for Justice and Amnesty International.  The Jamaican government, having responded to public pressure to forcefully combat crime, found itself in a quandary. The CMU was disbanded.

Statistically, and in terms of presenting an appearance of stability, squads like Reneto’s CMU appeared to be worthwhile. Its logic is a simple one. Jamaican urban (terrorist) gangs represent active “threats” to the social order. The application of a “militarized” response to contain/eliminate this “threat” is justifiable. But persistently employing the wrong tool for the job carries strong risks for human rights, and effective policing.

Bad Man Police Versus Community Policing

Does the policy of bad man policing render redundant effective community policing? The whole notion of “community policing”, is designed “to foster improved communication and mutual understanding between the police and the community” (Harriot, 2000:93). Given that they are the locus of the crime problem, violence–prone inner city communities are ideal political spaces for the incubation of improved relationships between citizens and police. The logic is that the police, due to living amongst and sustaining healthy interactions with citizens in the community and respecting their rights, will be less feared or perceived as an “occupying force” to be treated with contempt but as partners/facilitators in the fight against crime.

But according to Reneto Adams, who had been charged with murder following a controversial police killing in the Clarendon community of Crawle in 2004:

Community policing was designed for a real civil society or a society which is behaving in a civilized way. In other words, the policeman exercising community policing should not be carrying a firearm, should not be dressed like you see me dressed sometimes, should not be in squads … but many communities in Jamaica do not allow us to do that. They are dangerous… those places are not conducive to community policing.

It is these very real circumstances, which elevates the ‘bad man police’ and a militaristic style of policing (and leads to its widespread acceptance) as a viable crime-fighting option in certain communities in urban Jamaica.


2 comments on “Reneto Adams: From ‘Bad Man Police’ to Police Commissioner?

  1. Bad Man Police never work in the past and wiill not work in 2011.What will work is good intelligent on criminals and their gangs

    • Patrick I couldn’t agree with you more. The police need to gather more intelligence on these criminal elements. The whole idea of Bad Man Police is preposterous how does driving fear into criminals thwart them that will never work. We should stand back and continue to study their actions and motives and eventually we may come up with a solution.

      “Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in circumstances confronting him.”

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