Flashback: Relatives of the victims of the recent killings by police, photos at left, speak to a senior officer during one of the protests in Moruga. —Photo: DAVE PERSAD

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Police killings on the rise

By Richard Charan

There have been no death row hangings since 1999 in Trinidad and Tobago, the convicts protected by layers of legal loopholes that have taken them past the Privy Council-decreed five-year limit for the noose.

In the meantime, there is evidence that some police officers have anointed themselves judge, jury and executioner in an alarming number of cases, in which those killed are, most times, guilty of far less than a capital offence.

Between 2000 and 2011, including up two weeks ago when police killed three people in Moruga, officers have killed 256 people in Trinidad and Tobago (actually, only three are from Tobago).

Five of the dead were women, one a 17-year-old.

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.

CAPA could not immediately provide the number of law enforcement officers killed or maimed in the line of duty.

Nor could the unit state how many of the killings had led to criminal charges being laid against police officers, or how many cases went to coroner inquests or what the outcomes were.

That information is with the Homicide Bureau, the Sunday Express was told, but homicide officers said their statistics were far from complete.

This year, having 33 already dead from bullets bought by taxpayers, may end with the highest tally yet of killings that have been accepted, even commended, by many citizens terrorised by criminals capable of escaping more often than not.

Some of the killings the officers report to their seniors happened in "shoot-outs" after car chases or when police officers have had to use deadly force after warning their attackers, who failed to put down their cutlasses, knives, or pieces of iron or wood.

Some of the killings have no known civilian witness, or at least no witness willing to give a statement implicating the police, for fear of retaliation.

And in the cases where people have spoken up, officers have been accused of staging the gun battles and shoot-outs, and of planting weapons in cars or near bodies.

These cases have been cited by regional and international human rights organisations as a blot on the country.

In 2007, the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights responded to a Jamaican newspaper report of civilian killings in 24 years.

The report of the organisation's then executive director, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, is relevant today as it was in that year when 29 people were killed by the police in Trinidad and Tobago.

The report says: "The Caribbean Centre for Human Rights in Trinidad and Tobago has been counting, with mounting alarm, the number of such killings in Trinidad and Tobago as well, 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 perpetrators here as well.

The problem is that the police have to use what is known as "due process".

They simply cannot arrest or convict one of their officers for excessive use of force or for abuse of firearms without evidence, and where do they get their evidence from?

The other officers accompanying those that allegedly shot at the victims.

No civilians dare give evidence for fear of police retaliation, so the only evidence the police enquiry boards seem to have to depend on is that of the perpetrators' fellow officers, and does anyone really think that they are going to blow the whistle on their colleagues?

The standard excuse given, which any eight-year-old in Laventille, or Gonzales, or Rich Plain or Waterhole can recite to you is, 'The police were fired upon and returned fire, during the course of which the named person was killed'.

Never mind that the person fired upon was a thirteen-year-old boy who had no access to a weapon, and the likelihood of whose firing on a group of armed police officers ranges in the realm of fantasy.

Never mind there were no shells to be found from the people who allegedly did the firing at the police. Police have to account with the discharged shells how many shots were fired from each police weapon during an exercise; that is why they carefully gather up all the discharged shells from the scene of the shooting afterwards.

It also gives them a chance to claim that they found shells that came from non-police weapons as well. It cannot be too difficult to have a cache of those for use as "evidence" afterwards in case of public outcry.

We cannot be all that different from Jamaica in that respect where such subterfuges have been reported in the past.

It was reported, in Jamaica, that only 59 per cent of cases of "extra-judicial killings" of civilians by the police have been completed since 1999.

From a perspective of Trinidad and Tobago, 59 per cent seems astonishingly high: 66.5 per cent of those were acquitted.

There was no evidence, other than the dead bodies, with police bullets in them to convict them.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the comparable figures are six per cent of cases of "extrajudicial killings" of civilians by the police have been completed since 1999, and 50 per cent of those were acquitted.

The Caribbean Centre for Human Rights in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago's counterpart organisation to Jamaicans for Justice that monitors such statistics in Jamai-

ca, has been viewing with mounting concern the growing numbers of police killings in Trinidad and Tobago during 2007.

We are deeply disturbed by the statements made by families and neighbours in the vicinity that claim such killings to have been totally unprovoked by any "unfriendly firing" on the part of the victims.

Not all these statements can be false or misguided.

There are simply too many of them.

What are the authorities to do?

Convict their own officers on rumour or on statements made in the press?

On claims that neighbours witness but will not give evidence of in court? No human rights body could countenance that.

Anyone who contravenes the law, whether police or civilian, and, in so doing, ends the life of another person deserves to be justly punished. The principles of natural justice demand that the punishment be determined by due process of law, not by gang-inspired or police-inspired acts of extrajudicial vengeance.

We know that police officers are paid to protect communities against armed bandits and warring gangs, among other brutalities.

In the course of so doing, police sometimes do get fired on by desperate men and do have to fire back.

That is part of the price we pay for living in a society where guns are cheap and plentiful and where people are taught violence as a way of life in their own homes and communities from childhood.

We pay an even greater price when, for reasons of revenge and anger, we ignore the rules of natural justice and the human rights of other people, innocent or guilty, as they may be. In turn, they will soon be ignoring our human rights as well."

Amnesty International has also produced a report on the killings in Trinidad and Tobago, to be discussed later this year, on the topic "Excessive use of force by the security forces and lack of independent investigations".

"Excessive use of force by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service is widespread as is evident from the large number of alleged unlawful killings and ill-treatment cases. At least 40 people were reported to have been killed by police during 2008, and at least 39 people in 2009.

In most cases, police officers involved in the killings claimed they acted in self-defence.

However, in some cases, witness testimonies and other evidence suggested the killings might have been unlawful. Many killings also sparked violent protests among the communities in which they took place.

One such case is that of Tristan Cobbler, who was allegedly shot dead by police on January 3, 2010. Tristan called his mother and told her he had been shot in the leg by the police and was hiding in a bushy area in Mentor Alley, Laventille. While on the phone, she heard him say: "Oh God, I can't move. Don't shoot me."

Tristan's mother found her son's body where he had indicated he was hiding. The autopsy revealed he had died of multiple gunshot wounds to the legs, neck, back and chest. The police declared a gun was found beside the body. The killing sparked protests by residents, who claimed Tristan was murdered in cold blood.

Mechanisms to hold members of the Police Service accountable for alleged abuses are weak. On January 1, 2007, an amendment to the Police Complaints Authority Act entered into force, enabling the institution to investigate criminal offences involving police officers, corruption and serious misconduct.

However, the law contains ambiguities about these powers, and in its 2008 annual report, the Police Complaints Authority recommended a further amendment in order to clarify the scope of the Act. The authority said legislative provisions were necessary to clarify the competence of the authority to investigate all cases of killings by the police as "the present system whereby the police handle such investigations continues to be unsatisfactory and unacceptable".

The authority's work was also hampered by it having no director for almost three years, until December 2010.

A backlog of 1,000 complaints was reported in February 2011.

The professional conduct of the Police Service has been scrutinised on a number of occasions, especially in the light of the high incidence of violent crimes and the failure to bring police officers responsible for abuses to justice.

In July 2007, a parliamentary Joint Select Committee issued a report which was highly critical of the Police Service. The report highlighted the persistent failure by police officers to appear in court as complainants or witnesses, leading to many cases being dismissed.

The report also spoke of a disturbingly high number of disciplinary charges against officers, a need to combat the increased levels of indiscipline within the Police Service and a "serious lack of accountability from top to bottom" in the police force.

In July 2008, acting commissioner of police James Philbert acknowledged that the Police Service owed the nation an apology for the poor quality of policing experienced by some sectors of society over the years.

In October 2010, the deputy commissioner of police acknowledged that it would be "a monumental task" to transform the Police Service."

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