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Dogs of war unleashed

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The criminal element is increasingly ruthless, daring, well armed with sophisticated weaponry, and inexhaustible in number. The young men who confront the protective services place no particular importance on the value of human life, including their own. That by itself makes them formidable and dangerous adversaries.

The might of the criminal justice system is no deterrent. They have to be caught first, and the detection rate for the countless murders committed each year is woefully low. They also have to be convicted when caught. And the conviction rate is also shameful. The time spent in jail awaiting a trial which ends in release serves only to further harden hearts and empty the soul of the empathy which might temper the urge to kill. 

I admire and am grateful to the members of the Police Service, the army and the coast guard who wake each morning and go to work knowing the nature of the beast they must deal with, but risk their lives on our behalves nonetheless. I feel humbled and chastened when a member of our protective services is injured in the line of duty. 

I know of no one who feels any differently, and it is surely a source of regret that support for those who put themselves in harms way for our protection is not expressed more often and more publicly. 

That certainly does not mean that we must exercise self-restraint in calling upon them to account for their actions when they shoot and kill members of the public, however long may be the criminal record of the person who is killed. It is all too easy for police officers to develop a siege mentality and to be too quick to dispense summary justice, because they know that the chances are that an arrest will unlikely lead to a conviction.

This tendency may in fact have been the inevitable consequence of “unleashing the dogs of war.”

An army private was shot in the arm while on joint patrol in Clifton Hill, Laventille area last week. He and his colleagues came under apparently unprovoked “heavy fire” while walking through the community in the wee hours of the morning. There was an immediate increase in the joint police and army presence in the vicinity, leading to the arrest of several people who were taken to the Besson Street Police Station for questioning. 

A family member of one of the men in custody complained that the officers were abusing their powers. She was reported as saying: “They storm their way into our area this morning beating men and throwing them into the back of their cars and they refused to tell us what they hold them for. This is not justice, this is revenge. This is madness.” 

The Minister of National Security was quick to respond. He turned his sights on critics of police killings. “Where are the protesters quick to burn tyres expressing outrage over any situation where officers are forced to return fire in the line of duty, or those serial commentators who write essays to newspaper editors bemoaning police use of force.

How do they justify their silence when police officers are shot at on average every four days? Where is their righteous outrage when law enforcement officers are attacked?” he said in a press release.

It is important to the maintenance of morale that police officers can count on the support of the political head of the protective services. But that support must be measured and the minister must be careful not to appear to give those under his charge licence to trample on the rights of citizens or to be seen to silence critics of police misconduct.

I know of no one who has expressed outrage when police officers have defended themselves when under fire in the line of duty. But I have seen many commentators question the use of excessive force by police officers in the context of eye witness accounts of apparent police brutality and executions. Emphasis should be placed on the word “question.”

The unease which commentators like myself express is with the absence of a mechanism by which the actions of police officers can be independently investigated. No one bemoans the use of deadly force in self defence. It is the unaccountable use of force which is of concern. 

While the joint patrol was under fire in Clifton Hill, police officers were on mobile patrol along North Eastern Settlement, in Sangre Grande, when they came upon a man who was wanted in connection with several shooting incidents. When challenged, he ran into a forested area with the police in pursuit. Hiding behind a tree, he opened fire on the police officers, who by then had called for backup and whose numbers had now expanded. The police returned fire and the man was killed. 

Given the location of the incident, it is to be assumed that there were no independent eye witnesses. We therefore have no choice but to accept the police officers’ account of how the man met his death. But I think I am entitled to entertain some skepticism about a report that a man, surrounded by police officers, would choose to open fire rather than surrender. 

And I think I am entitled to say that this, the 46th police killing for the year, should also be investigated so that my misgivings could be calmed and the good name of police officers who put their lives on the line could be preserved. Or if any wrongdoing is found, that appropriate action be taken. What is not right is for the minister to suggest that I must stifle my call for accountability, unless I am prepared simultaneously to express outrage each time police officers come under attack.


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