As police confront a sustained wave of violent crime in the country, some 23 people have been killed in officer-involved shootings this year, a 64% increase over a similar period in 2018.
The 23 fatalities occurred in 14 officer-involved shootings, according to the Police Complaints Authority. Over a similar period in 2018, some 14 people were killed in 11 shootings involving police officers.
Two incidents in the last several days -in Carenage and Enterprise- have triggered a debate about whether police are being too heavy-handed in dealing with suspects. This allegation is often times levelled by the same people who ask police to help stamp out crime and criminals in their neighbourhoods.
In one high-profile incident that warranted a visit by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, three people were killed and four others, including a police officer, were wounded last Friday during a shootout between Western Division officers and residents of Big Yard, Carenage. Residents said 14-year-old Naomi Nelson was killed and the PM’s Godson was among those injured.
Some Carenage residents pointed fingers at a so-called rogue police officer whom they said was responsible for Friday’s incident. They claimed that the police were worse than criminals.
But their accusation drew a fierce response from Police Commissioner Gary Griffith, who said residents should report rogue officers—and also criminals in their community.
“Sell them out!” Griffith said in a text exchange with Guardian Media.
“So they want to clean up their community? Then sell out not just rogue police officers but also the gang punks who self-appointed themselves as community leaders.”
He added, “It is not police officers in Carenage who work with the Venezuelan underworld to assist them in smuggling drugs. It is not the police who have been killing others due to gang-war between two rival groups. It was not the police getting on like hooligans when the PM visited Big Yard. I can go on and on.”
Despite his defence of the officers, Griffith said citizens could speak to him directly if they do not trust police officers.
“It is time for all residents to start understanding that the police is not the enemy,” he said.
“It is these so-called gangs that have taken virtual control of certain communities, that has been the catalyst for homicides.”
Griffith has been criticised for his policy, known as “one-shot-one-kill,” which gives police the green light to aim for the heads and chests of suspects involved in armed confrontations.
The Law Association has said that the use of force must be appropriate to the threat faced by officers. Others have said Griffith’s policy was more suitable for military situations than policing. Griffith is a former soldier.
But Police Complaints Authority director David West yesterday said he did not think “one-shot-one-kill” was the catalyst for the rise in fatal police shootings.
“What is concerning is when there are multiple victims from a police incident,” West said.
“I attribute it to officers going into areas where there are several persons around and the narrative that somebody pulls a weapon, the police officers fire back in self-defence and multiple persons are shot.”
In one incident last October, five men in Laventille were fatally shot by police who said the suspects fired on officers. Residents disputed the police account.
“It all has to do with the social dynamic and how the people in those areas are perceiving the police,” West said.
“It is not the friendly, warm welcome. I would think police should do a proper vetting first before they go into those areas.
“There is a lot of work to be done between the police and these areas in hot spots.”
Autopsy: Carenage teen hit in head
An autopsy done on Naomi Nelson, one of the people killed in an alleged shootout between police and a group of Carenage residents last Friday, has revealed she was shot once in the back of the head.
Guardian Media was told a bullet struck Nelson in the back of the head and exited through the front.
Relatives are said to have been angered and distressed by the results and are again appealing for justice.
One relative, who wished not to be named yesterday, said, “One way or another we will get justice and the police officer responsible for this will face a spiritual death.”
Nelson, 14, who attended the Mucurapo West Secondary and was a member of the Western Division Police Youth Club, was killed along with Keron Eve, 30 and Kareem Roberts, 27 on Friday night.
Two others, Christian Eve, 31 and Ronaldo Sydney, 21, who is said to be the Godson of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, were also injured during the incident. Sydney has a bullet lodged in the abdomen that is said to be moving closer to the spine.
Relatives of Eve and Roberts yesterday declined to comment further on the issue.
Reporter: Renuka Singh and Rhondor Dowlat