Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob faced his first major firestorm of public criticism since being appointed to lead the organisation last December after buying the police version of the fatal shooting of an officer in Diego Martin on April 22, hook, line and sinker.
To his credit, Jacob, at the first opportunity, acknowledged that he was wrong to conclude PC Clarence Gilkes was shot through the neck from in front after an autopsy proved the bullet entered from behind.
While he opted not to comment further on the issue pending the outcome of the investigation into the incident being done by both the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) and the Homicide Bureau, Jacob in an interview with Sunday Newsday agreed with the use of body cameras by police could help resolve opposing versions in the future.
Rich Plain residents, as well as Jehlano Romney, the man who was first identified as the main suspect in Gilkes' killing and is now assisting investigators, claimed the officer was shot by his colleagues. Romney claims the police wanted him dead because he filed a lawsuit over police harassment.
Jacob said on the contrary the police "only recently received 1,100 body cameras" which will be distributed to frontline officers such as those in the divisional task forces, the Emergency Response Patrols and the Traffic and Highway units.
He said within "two to three months" over 1,000 officers will be trained and the technical aspects, which include installing docking systems at police stations for recharging equipment and downloading data, networks to connect to divisional command centres and the final approval of a revised departmental order which governs its use, will be complete. Once approved, officers who fail to comply with the proper use, tamper with the cameras, or fail to switch them on, could face disciplinary action.
A copy of the departmental order, now under review by a committee appointed by Jacob, states that the body-worn cameras will serve as a check against abuse by police and alternatively as protection of officers from false accusations by the public.
Jacob said before the recent shipment of body cameras, the service had 160 which were shared between officers of the now-defunct Special Operations Response Team and some officers assigned to divisional task forces. Commenting generally on the issue, PCA director David West said, "When an incident occurs, I think decision-makers and persons in authority should await all facts before making a definitive judgement and a public declaration on what transpired.
"It is prudent to await the outcome of an independent investigation before making any statements or pronouncements in the public domain. This impartiality would give the public a sense of confidence in the investigative process, knowing that the person(s) in authority will make a proper unbiased evaluation prior to making any judgments."
Former commissioner Gary Griffith, who had often faced a barrage of public criticism over his defence of officers accused of excessive force and unjustified killings, also urged caution.
"What was said and done previously cannot be erased but that is history. It is strongly recommended that all be asked to refrain from commenting until the investigation has been completed."
Two former prosecutors, who both champion the call for transparency in police investigations, particularly fatal shootings, also shared their views.
In an e-mailed response, attorney Brent Winter suggested that the leadership of the service should avoid jumping to denials.
"Whilst when tragedy occurs and the public gaze is focused on you, it is a natural impulse of persons in positions of power to seek to control the narrative before it does irretrievable damage.
He said in the case of Gilkes' death, while both Jacob and National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds responded in short order, they "failed to adhere to one major tenet of public relations crisis management – don't jump to denial."
"In the instant case, when questioned about the possibility that the officer may have been accidentally shot by one of his own colleagues, the commissioner described it as 'hogwash' and added, 'Sitting some distance away and making statements where something occurred within a secluded area on the steps heading up into the hills, it’s amazing that they have seen and talk about friendly fire. An officer is shot in his neck from the front and we talk about friendly fire?' You know this is what we are talking about. We have to get serious in our country in relation to this and we’re constantly giving some merit to persons who are involved in criminal activities in our land.”
Winter said such statements were "remarkably reminiscent of one made by a former commissioner in April 2019, where it was reportedly said that '…in many locations when young people are killed by police, you will always see a lady with a towel wrapped around her screaming he didn’t do nothing, leave him alone.’"
He said emotive comments can also act as a "tinder of flames of anger" and further erode public confidence and trust in the police "as exemplified by the poor conviction rate in criminal jury trials."
"Without appreciating the public’s anti-police sentiment, such disappointing statements carry the tendency to dissuade an already apathetic citizenry from coming forward and providing evidence of what transpired. It also signals a certain predisposition and prejudice towards a particular conclusion on the part of the head of a service charged with the investigation of the officer’s homicide. The commissioner is responsible for promotions within the 2nd Division of the TTPS, and when your leader is inclined to a certain outcome, there exists the possibility for his subordinate investigators to gravitate towards a similar result. Thus, there is the real possibility of having the streams of justice polluted," Winter surmised.
Attorney Lee Merry, who founded the NGO High Tide Project last year, seeking to push for criminal justice reform, advocating for the public disclosure of findings against officers accused of misconduct said such information can go a long way in promoting transparency in investigations. The organisation, through its Police Transparency Initiative, has filed lawsuits against the CoP and the Judiciary seeking disclosure of records of misconduct by police.
"We continue to experience high levels of violence and abuse by police officers. The principal cause is a lack of accountability – independent investigations are not conducted within a reasonable timeframe. In the few instances where investigations are completed and police officers are charged, the cases take many years to be resolved in the courts. So there are no reasonably immediate repercussions. This is not lost on citizens and the lack of accountability breeds mistrust and even worse – hatred," Merry said in an e-mailed response.
He said such delays in resolving cases against police fuel the "us against them" mentality and people, particularly those from marginalised groups are not treated as customers or clients but rather as "pawns to be herded and controlled."
"We have asked the commissioner to disclose the names of officers found guilty of serious misconduct which he has refused to do, claiming that revealing their identities is not in the public interest and would result in 'inappropriate penalisation' of the officers. We have been forced to take the matter to court to acquire the information. Until we can hold individual police officers to account within a reasonable timeframe, and until the police leadership takes steps to address the 'us against them' mentality, police abuse of citizens will continue," Merry said.