When Burroughs is a hero
Trinidad & Tobago Newsday
Monday, September 3 2007
The seven shot dead by the police happened over the weekend between the Ryder-Scott gas reserves coming to an end, Have Faith and the Praise the Almighty and the Love Budget. News tiredness alone would have pushed the seven shot deads into the background.
There were other reasons for the relative silence before these police shot deads: we had seen it before. Over the past eight months, 18 people have been shot dead by the police. Moreover the reaction of some to crime, which everyone accepts is out of control, has been “Bring back Burroughs.” That phrase is overlaid with meaning. Burroughs achieved the ending of a students’ revolt turned serious, by killing off anyone supposed to be part of this Trini Ché Guevara revolution. The story that tough would-be revolutionaries had thrown away their weapons, knelt before Burroughs pleading for their lives, and were shot by him in person, remains as the model of ultimate imposition of law and order.There is another reason. Over the last few years the nation’s courts have lost a fair amount of the aura which had surrounded them. It is not only that they sometimes failed to convict where popular opinion had already convicted. Over this very same year there have been a record number of cases dismissed for lack of evidence, or non-appearance of the police, witnesses who changed their evidence and a contagious forgetting virus a little like crime- Alzheimer’s. Even if summary execution is wrong – and not all believe that it is – it is increasingly seen as an acceptable alternative to runaway unpunished crime. It can also be seen as an acceptable alternative to the Privy Council’s refusal to allow us to hang convicted murderers.
Change of strategy
Prime Minister Manning himself is on record for saying that he did believe that Capital Punishment was a deterrent. Only a few weeks ago he announced that there had been “a change of strategy. If you are caught with a gun . . .” The proximity to elections has not helped. Already, the UNC in its alliance with Cadiz, has not only made it clear that the real or supposed difficulty of the government to protect citizens, will be an important part of their election campaign. The UNC’s parallel crime fighting initiatives are not necessarily meant to be efficient. They are meant to point to the inadequacy of government’s crime fighting. It is not surprising therefore that there was little outcry over the weekend seven shot-deads.
In these weekend shot-deads a woman was killed. Whatever questioning of the background and intentions of six of the seven, there is general consensus that the woman was simply collateral damage. She had returned home from work, began to undress and, hearing the shooting, went to close the window. She received a bullet in her chest. If her husband is to be believed, she was taken up by the police, as she was in “bra and underwear” – I suspect the word underwear was her husband’s euphemism for panty – and thrown into the police pickup on top of the other bodies, three it would seem. That she was thrown almost naked on the bodies of three strange men, would seem to have hurt and humiliated her husband more than the killing. It was the final straw of powerlessness. She had left behind five children.
And the three men? Were they bandits, kidnappers, murderers quick on the draw and wanted by the police and everyone else? Hard to say. Neighbours and their colleagues at the building site of Jacob’s Hill thought that they were ordinary construction workers who had just got paid. The police story was of men who refused to stop when challenged who shot first, and that the woman, Wendy Courtney, was caught in the crossfire. Police reports have since seemed to play down “shot first,” stressing instead that a quantity of guns and ammunition was found in the car. The police may be correct. They may also be scrupulously honest in any investigation of the killings. But investigations will be an internal matter for the police.
And there we come to one of the problems which will be repeated in the case of prisons: we are yet to end our tradition of inhouse investigations. Few countries today permit police to investigate police. It is not that police are generally mistrusted. It is that if the police are to be respected, prudence demands that investigations be done by those who are not only “above reproach.” They must be perceived as likely to be objective. This may well mean that any Complaints Authority or Ombudsman governing police behaviour should be outside of the hierarchical structure and power of the police force, including its Commissioner. Something is wrong when there are 633 complaints against the police in five months; 12,767 complaints from 2002 to 2006; and only 3,916 were resolved. Of these, 252 officers were warned, disciplined and one dismissed.
In other words, only 25 percent of all complaints were settled in some manner.
In addition to this it would seem to me wise – and fair – that every case of police shooting and killing should automatically be referred to some form of tribunal for investigation. The last thing anyone wants, particularly in a small island, are rumours of police “executions.” One of the main reasons for instability in some countries in Latin America has been the behaviour of the police.
This behaviour is never only a police matter. Rather it has traditionally emerged out of a demand coming from the elites of a country to “do something now.” This “now” is not interested in the reasons for crime. It is supposed that all that is needed to end crime is to match criminal firepower with more police firepower. Unfortunately there is little to support this. Rather since detection and not force is the major deterrent to crime, it is to detection to which we must turn.
Not Jamaica or Colombia
Relatively few people are shot dead by the police. We are not yet a Jamaica where the conflict between police and some areas sometimes ends in a pitched battle. We are certainly not a Colombia where police fire has been aided by private militia fire and where the situation has been complicated by Left guerrilla warfare.
However the time to stop the slide into the carving out of no-go areas backed by gang guns “protecting” the inhabitants is now. This now, is not only the police. It is also the degree to which law and order are used in an election campaign and the extent to which police become scapegoats for the wider ills of the society.
What happens on arrest? This affects far more people than does police shooting. Dr Narayansingh has claimed that certain people are handcuffed and certain are not, with the implication that the very act of handcuffing has been used as an act of humiliation rather than as an unavoidable method of preventing escape or struggle. This may not be true, but in a racially divided country care must be taken to be seen to be fair. The incidence of television alone multiplies the impact of acts which may be perceived as “doing down” or humiliating. It should be noted that anything we think of as humiliating, easily becomes a feather in the cap in some quarters. That too should be avoided.
One of our problems is the over-reliance on confessions. This is particularly true where witnesses are reluctant to come forward. The absence of DNA testing and, until recently, the absence of training in some aspects of evidence collection at the scene, has added to the reliance on confessions. There is a certain danger in this. In nearly every country there is the temptation to pressure suspects into giving confessions.
This pressure is not only the fear of, or actual possibility of, physical enforcement – usually beatings. A recent and tragic case in the Republic of Ireland has illustrated that police questioning may be done in such a manner as to elicit a response that is tantamount to a confession, will stand up in court, may be a case of “putting words in the mouth” of the suspect who may be innocent and find it difficult to prove it.
In the Irish case it was discovered by chance and only after the suspect had died in prison.
Society and values
It needs to be underlined that crime is not only a police affair. Rather the incidence of crime, how crime is defined and who is most likely to commit it, are primarily the result of social problems of integration and of exclusion. How the police react is not outside of this.
Police, after all, are part of a society whose values they only marginally define.