Jamaica wrestles with police violence
By Chris Summers
BBC News Online
Human rights groups - and a UN special rapporteur -
have accused some Jamaican police officers of carrying out
extra-judicial executions. Six members of a controversial police team
face a trial over the alleged murder of four civilians.
BBC News Online investigates whether Jamaica's
police are out of control or just struggling to keep a lid on a violent
Superintendent Reneto Adams denies four murder charges
To some, Superintendent Reneto Adams is Jamaica's version of Dirty
Harry: an avenging angel who is the scourge of the island's criminals.
Opinion polls in Jamaica's press often give him 60%
support and hundreds of people turned up to back him at a court hearing
But Supt Adams' methods, and those of the Crime
Management Unit (CMU) which he led, have sparked a major inquiry into
policing on the island.
Last summer the unit was disbanded and Supt Adams was
suspended after four people were killed in a raid.
Angela Richards, Lewena Thompson, Kirk Gordon and
Matthew James were gunned down in the town of Crawle in May 2003.
Supt Adams and his men said they only opened fire when
they themselves came under fire. But prosecutors claim a spent shell
from a Winchester rifle, which the unit said they found in the house,
had been planted.
Last month Supt Adams and five CMU colleagues - Devon
Bernard, Roderick Collier, Shane Lyons, Patrick Coke and Latrid Gordon -
were charged with murder.
Devon Bernard is already facing seven murder charges
in connection with the deaths of seven youths killed by a CMU team in
Supt Adams and his colleagues deny murder.
His attorney, Jacqueline Samuels-Brown, said he
maintains that he and his men only returned fire after coming under
She told BBC News Online: "He is very popular across
the political divide, among the business community and ordinary citizens
with whom there is an overwhelming perception that he is an effective
Mrs Samuels-Brown said: "Unfortunately we are in a
very violent society and the violence is directed by civilians against
civilians and by civilians against police.
Janice Allen, 13, was shot dead by police in 2000
"That is one of the most fundamental issues in our society. Why are
we so prone to violence?"
Whatever the outcome of the Reneto Adams case, many
Jamaicans believe the police service as a whole uses excessive force.
Last year the Jamaican Government invited detectives
from London's New Scotland Yard to the island to look into the deaths of
around 30 suspected drug dealers.
Earlier this year the Scotland Yard team concluded
many had been the victims of a "shoot-to-kill" policy.
A British Government-funded group of experts also came
to the island on a fact-finding mission and held a symposium on
The UN's Special Rapporteur, Asma Jahangir, also
visited the island recently and concluded "extra-judicial executions by
the police and, possibly, in a very few cases, also Jamaican Defence
Forces, had in fact taken place."
Amnesty International says Jamaica has one of the
world's highest rates of police killings.
Jamaican police shot dead 113 people last year, down
from 133 the previous year. But Jamaica only has a population of 2.6
million, compared with eight million in New York City, which had around
25 fatal police shootings last year.
"There have been 49 already this year, and it's only
May," said Yvonne McCalla Sobers, chairman of Families Against State
Terrorism (FAST), a Jamaican pressure group.
She told BBC News Online: "It's not as if the police
are succeeding in bringing crime down. Crime levels are continuing to go
up. We have had 460 murders so far this year.
"The police's actions certainly aren't helping. In
fact they are promoting a culture in which human life is undervalued."
Ms Sobers said few people trusted the police to solve crimes and
added: "Justice is elusive and many people think unless you take it in
your own hands you will never have it, so a third of murders are
She pointed out the case of Janice Allen, a
13-year-old girl from the Trenchtown district of Kingston, who was shot
dead by police in 2000 as she went to buy a bag of rice.
"The trial (of the police officer who shot her) lasted
20 minutes. The jury was asked to return a not guilty verdict. Several
key police witnesses were not there and documents had got lost."
But the Jamaican police say the UN special
rapporteur's report, based as it was on interviews, was "unreliable".
Assistant Commissioner Charles Scarlett said: "We are
not saying there are not instances when excessive force is alleged but
each case was fairly investigated under the supervision of the Police
Public Complaints Authority.
Police killed four people at Crawle in May 2003
"From time to time officers are charged. Some are convicted and some
"We do not condone the unlawful activities of any
Mr Scarlett said the police's guidelines on the use of
force had recently been revised.
He told BBC News Online: "Last year 14 policemen were
killed and 16 escaped death only to be seriously wounded.
'Occasional errors of judgement'
"In that context there are going to be occasional
errors of judgement but it's disingenuous to disregard the environment
that we are operating in."
Mr Scarlett said: "It's intellectually dishonest for
people, from the comfort of their air conditioned offices, to compare us
with New York."
He said the force was still investigating the Janice Allen incident
to see if any officer did anything "unprofessional".
Mr Scarlett also pointed out that a new community
policing initiative had begun in an attempt to "win the hearts and minds
of the younger generation" especially in inner-city communities with
high crime rates.
Dr Carolyn Gomes, of the Jamaicans For Justice, said:
"Yesterday morning a man was killed in his bed in Spanish Town (a
district of Kingston). He had previously been threatened by the police.
"The police said he died in a shoot-out but the
community said he was just lying in his bed. It's a fairly typical
But one journalist on Jamaica's leading newspaper, the
Gleaner, said: "You can't always blame the police. There are heavily
armed criminals living in hard to reach areas. It's dangerous. It's like
a war out there. "
And the war goes on.