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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
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 society.

Supt Adams ©Jamaica Observer
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 last month.

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.

Evidence 'planted'

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.

There is an overwhelming perception that he is an effective crime fighter
Jacqueline Samuels-Brown
Supt Adams' attorney

Devon Bernard is already facing seven murder charges in connection with the deaths of seven youths killed by a CMU team in March 2001.

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 attack.

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 crime fighter."

'Violent society'

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.

Poster of Janice Allen ©SOS Jamaica
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 policing.

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.

'Life undervalued'

"The police's actions certainly aren't helping. In fact they are promoting a culture in which human life is undervalued."

The police's actions certainly aren't helping. In fact they are promoting a culture in which human life is undervalued
Yvonne McCalla Sobers
Families Against State Terrorism
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 reprisal killings."

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.

Map of Jamaica
Police killed four people at Crawle in May 2003
"From time to time officers are charged. Some are convicted and some are acquitted.

"We do not condone the unlawful activities of any police officers."

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."

There are going to be occasional errors of judgement but it's disingenuous to disregard the environment that we are operating in
Charles Scarlett
Assistant commissioner of police
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 story."

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.

Jamaica acts over police abuse
09 Jun 03  |  Americas
Dead men tell no tales
14 Sep 01  |  Crossing Continents
Country profile: Jamaica
23 May 03  |  Country profiles

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