Too many deaths in paradise: Jamaica is awash with police shootings and has brought in a British commissioner to investigate
Jamaica is living in fear from law enforcement after officers committed 245 fatal shootings last year. Paul Peachey talks to the commissioner recruited from Scotland Yard to investigate the island’s force
Aurdia McCallum heard a group of police officers questioning her boyfriend just before the first shot rang out. According to her account, she had been bundled into one room while three officers from the Jamaica Constabulary Force took Dean Christie to the bedroom where they had been sleeping until the early morning knock.
“I shouted for Dean and the police officer slapped me in the face and said: ‘shut up, stop your noise’ but I kept on screaming,” she said. “After that I heard a gunshot explosion and I shouted for Dean, but I didn’t hear a response. They’ve ripped my heart out and there’s nothing they can do to fix it.”
Mr Christie, 25, was just one of 40 people to die at the hands of the Jamaican police in a single month of mayhem, sparked by an announcement of a harsh crackdown on gang crime by the force hierarchy.
In 2013, five people a week died at the hands of the police, according to new figures, in a country awash with guns and where the police are among the world’s deadliest with a long history of recorded extra-judicial killings.
The police account of the death is starkly different. Officers claim Mr Christie opened fire after they chased a “suspicious” figure outside the family home in the Salt Spring area of western Jamaica. They returned fire and killed him. A pistol was found on his body with three live rounds that lent credence to their story.
But in Jamaica, they have heard it all before and many don’t believe it. A photograph of a large patch of congealed blood – posted online by his family – was just a few inches from the bed. Ms McCallum angrily denied that her boyfriend had a gun in the house. “They travel around with a stock of illegal guns,” she said. “That’s what the police did.”
Police say they are responding to powerful gangs that have taken over inner-city areas neglected by the state with poor housing, few jobs and basic services. The notorious drug lord Christopher Dudus Coke was jailed for 23 years in a US prison in 2012 for gun and drug trafficking but only after a five-week operation to catch him saw clashes in the capital Kingston which left dozens dead.
Gang leaders are said to receive a regular flow of guns from the US and Cuba which are distributed to young foot soldiers who brutally enforce their rule. The system struggles to cope with more than 1,000 people murdered last year and the court system is unable to tackle the huge backlog of cases. Observers blame a culture of impunity built up for years with police rarely held to account for what they have done. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 2,220 fatal shootings by police have been reported, yet only two police officers have been convicted for their involvement in killings, according to Amnesty International.
Two whistle-blowers claimed in a Jamaican newspaper this week that senior officers had ordered killings at pre-operation briefings, assigning illegal guns known as ‘sweeties’ to place on dead men’s bodies. Six officers, charged in July by a new watchdog over four separate fatal shootings, have all been accused of planting weapons. Although the force’s leadership denied the claim, the newspaper stands by its story and human rights groups have called for more investigations.
“We keep hearing far too often that a gun has been planted,” said Hamish Campbell, assistant commissioner of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) which investigates fatal police shootings. “Across the island, this is the story that has been alleged for years and years. ”
Amnesty has documented many of the killings and the UN has criticised the excessive use of force by the Jamaican authorities. In 2003, Jamaica disbanded one controversial unit and a notorious senior officer, Reneto Adams, was put on trial over the deaths of four people killed during a police raid. Mr Adams received widespread public support with hundreds turning up for his trial and he was cleared of murder.
The image of Jamaica as an island with a rampant crime problem has long exercised the government which needs foreign currency from wealthy tourists for its rocky economy. Upmarket resorts on its beautiful coastline spend millions on security.
In response to years of controversies, the government set up INDECOM in 2010 and 40 officers have since been charged with criminal offences, but the clogged court system has yet to bring any of the cases to a conclusion. The government is trying to introduce draconian anti-gang legislation but faces stern resistance as it hands even more powers to the police.
Meanwhile, the number of fatal shootings by police continued to rise with 245 last year for a country of some three million people. Last year in Britain there were none.
Mr Campbell, the former head of homicide at Scotland Yard who headed high-profile inquiries such as the Jill Dando murder case, has a small team of 37 to investigate police shootings. Their task is daunting with the few witnesses often too scared to speak out. But some cases where victims survived an armed encounter – 36 in the last six months of 2013 – have shed new light on police accounts.
“A small sub-set of witnesses provide a worryingly different and contradictory story that the men were neither armed, in bed or shot on immediate confrontation with the police,” said Mr Campbell. “That sort of scenario plays out week after week.
“Of course police have a very difficult job. The country is dominated by the gun in its criminal fraternities. The police obviously meet gunmen, and are confronted by them on occasions, but the response is overwhelmingly fatal.”
The commission – which has overcome a series of legal challenges – still faces delays in its investigation. More than three months after Mr Christie’s death, investigators are still awaiting forensic reports.
His family claims he was killed while being questioned about two barrels of items brought over to Jamaica by his British-based family. His step-father, Alex Rugg, who was visiting Jamaica with wife Shellean from Worcester at the time of the shooting, has reported to investigators that jewellery and mobile phones went missing after his death.
There is little obvious sign of a slowdown in the shootings. In the first 13 days of January this year, there were 13. “The government are not doing anything; it’s been repeated over and again,” said Ms McCallum.
“Every day it’s the same script, but a different cast.”
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