Between 2000 and 2011, 256 civilians were killed by the police and “according to the statistics provided by the Crime and Problem Analysis (CAPA) Department of the Police Service, the number of extrajudicial killings has increased consistently over the past decade” according to a 2011 newspaper report.
The claims by police and families/neighbours are typically and strikingly irreconcilable; police claim the killings were in self-defence while victims’ families and neighbours claim the killings were unprovoked and that the deceased were unarmed.
It was also reported that CAPA could not state the number of killings that have led to criminal charges being laid against the police officers responsible nor how many inquests were held and the findings of inquests conducted.
The Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (2007) “has been counting, with mounting alarm, the number of such killings in T&T...and as the protests from communities in the country that have been witness to such homicides become louder and more strident, the Centre questions the implacable response from the police, in which every internal investigation exonerates the police.”
Amnesty International noted that “there has been little significant improvement in investigations to clarify the circumstances surrounding these deaths and bringing those responsible to justice.”
The report also examined several apparently unlawful killings and noted “the failure of the authorities to conduct full, prompt and impartial investigations”. It considers some of the key problems in the internal and external police complaints mechanisms which “have denied relatives of the victims the right to an effective remedy and allowed a climate of impunity to flourish”.
The current checks and balances available are the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), coroner’s inquests and criminal charges.
The many limitations of the PCA have been highlighted publicly by its director, Gillian Lucky. The PCA does not have the power to initiate independent investigations and therefore relies on investigations carried out by the police. The PCA has frequently complained that the information provided to it by the police has been inadequate and subject to lengthy delays.
Coroner’s inquests are often subject to frequent adjournments and delays, aggravating the uncertainty and suffering of the victim’s family.
Criminal charges can be laid by the DPP for these killings if eye witnesses are willing to give statements implicating the police and testify in court. The practical reality is that confessions and forensic evidence are rare and unobtainable. So too are witness statements as witnesses are fearful of implicating an officer especially because such reports are made to the officer’s colleagues.
At the heart of extra-judicial killings by the police is the excessive use of force (firearms) and from all indications there is no firm guidance, or at the very least, no firm adherence to the guidelines for the use of force by officers committing these extra-judicial killings.
The PCA Act should be amended to ensure that the PCA has the power to investigate all alleged misconduct and allegations of human rights violations by members of the Police Service; to refer cases for criminal prosecution to the DPP and to suggest disciplinary measures to police departments; and that adequate resources are allocated to the PCA in order for it to effectively perform its investigative tasks.
Coroner’s inquests should be made mandatory for all deaths in custody and deaths by police shooting and should be carried out without unreasonable delay. I also recommend that the role played by coroner’s inquests in establishing the facts behind such cases be strengthened and comply with international human rights standards. Families of the deceased and their legal representatives should be entitled to have access to all information relevant to the case, to present evidence and to examine witnesses.
Guidelines for the use of force and firearms should conform to the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The standards should be reflected in written policies, training manuals and courses, and in operational briefings to ensure that members of the TTPS are trained in accordance with these guidelines.
All incidents involving use of weapons or firearms, whether intentional or not and whether or not they result in injury, should be recorded immediately and should be subject to scrutiny by an internal and/or an external oversight body. Allegations of misuse of force or firearms should be investigated promptly, thoroughly, impartially and independently. Ongoing analysis of incidents of use of force and firearms should be conducted by internal and external police oversight bodies to ensure that international human rights standards are being adhered to.
There are some 200 pending inquests relating to extra-judicial killings by the police. A commission of enquiry should be issued to enquire into all the circumstances surrounding the killings of civilians by police. Legislation provides that the President may issue the commission.
While the victims of police killings are not all innocent, the greater shame is in not knowing the difference.
• Attorney Daniel I Khan
is Inspector of Prisons