#2014 : second highest number of police killings in 14 years
While it may feel to many that 2014 has been a record year in terms of the number of persons killed following altercations with members of the TT Police Service (TTPS) with 46 persons dead following confrontations with officers, that ‘accolade’ actually belongs to 2010.
That year, 49 persons were killed by police following varying interactions with the law.
However, the statistic for last year is still the second highest number of reported police killings since 2000, and unfortunately, this statistic is actually tied with the number of persons killed by police in 2009.
And while these numbers in the minds of many may seem to print a grim tale, and even give an impression of a “wild west mentality” by officers in the TTPS, with allegations of impropriety and dishonesty levied against the police reports for most of these incidents by grieving relatives or persons who claim to have witnessed the incidents; one must still remember that the threats that the men and women of this organization face are a very real and tangible thing.
In 2014 alone, over 500 illegal firearms were seized and removed from the streets of this country following police exercises; an estimated 75 percent of the 403 murders reported for the year were committed via the use of firearms.
And while these statistics are not quoted to condone any alleged actions of officers in the TTPS in favour of another year of a high number of police killings – because at the end of the day these were still 46 lives lost – it is presented in an attempt to give a holistic approach on the situation.
That said, the fact that investigations into several of these incidents are taking such a long time to be completed does not bolster public confidence in the police service either.
Most of the reports in which statements from the police and alleged eyewitnesses vary, are still under investigation, or if they have been completed, the information has yet to be properly disclosed to the public.
And while the loss of any life is a tragic thing, the one incident which stood out this year among so many was the death of Joel Apparicio.
It is a unique case because, if the events of witnesses to the incident are to be believed, then he was killed by a police officer while making his way to the San Juan Police Station for assistance.
Apparicio, 31, was killed on May 22, by a Special Reserve Police officer (SRP) in San Juan while running along Real Street toward the Police Station, to make a report.
Several persons claimed to have witnessed the police officer, who was last attached to the Witness Protection Unit of the Homicide Bureau and worked at a sub-station in San Juan, drive alongside Apparicio in a black Nissan X-trail motor-vehicle, roll down his window, and shoot the 31-year-old man apparently without warning as he was still running.
Apparicio died on the scene, and the officer who reportedly killed him remained parked in the car as a crowd, which included the 31-year-old’s mother Pastor Wendy-Ann Huggins, gathered around his lifeless body.
Reporters who were in the area at the time arrived on the scene mere minutes after the shooting took place and witnessed a grieving Huggins go through her son’s clothing and belongings in full view of the officer who killed him and the crowd who gathered, in an attempt to demonstrate once and for all that her son had not stolen anything and had nothing illegal on him – as in there were no firearms, ammunition, or narcotics in his possession.
Yet, the pastor as well as other persons in the crowd repeatedly noted that instead of arresting and apprehending the young man for whatever offence it was perceived he may have committed, in the heat of that moment, the SRP decided to shoot the fleeing man.
The police reports on this incident were simply that the SRP witnessed Apparicio running from a group of men who were alleging that he had just committed a crime, and that the 31-year-old was shot in an attempt by the officer to detain him.
But an autopsy performed at the Forensic Science Centre in St James by pathologist Dr Hughvon Des Vignes, did reveal that Apparicio was killed by a single bullet. The bullet entered the left side of his chest, perforating several vital organs, before exiting on the right side of his chest.
This autopsy report does appear to lend some credibility to the version of events given by Apparicio’s mother.
The last request from the media for an update into this incident came at about November, six months after this incident took place, and the media was informed that the matter was still under investigations, meaning that a decision on whether charges were to be laid against the SRP had yet to be made.
And while Apparicio’s case is being highlighted in this review, it remains one of several situations in which, months after an incident has taken place where there are conflicting reports between the police and alleged eye witnesses, investigators are still trying to gather the facts and make a decision on how best to proceed.
Other similar incidents include the killing of 21-year-old Naim Dean, the killing of 35-year-old Nigel Long, and the killing of cousins Hakeem, 16, and Tevin Alexander, 15, just to name a few. In each of these aforementioned incidents, there are conflicting reports between the police and persons who claimed to have witnessed the incidents.
#PCA looking into 45 police killings
Even the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), under the new leadership of attorney David West, noted that the Authority is currently looking into 45 police killings for their calendar year.
Speaking to Express on Wednesday, West explained that between September 2013 and October 2014, the Authority had exercised its legal right to initiate investigations into 45 police killings.
“The PCA’s role, and its mandate really, is to investigate such matters of serious misconduct and incidents whereby there are conflicting reports would fall into our purview. So what we do, on top of taking reports from relatives or witnesses who come in on their own accord to make formal complaints, is that we monitor the media and the news, noting what is reported and if there are complaints of conflicting reports. From there a decision would be made if the situation falls within the remit of the Authority and from there our investigators will go out and do what has to be done by gathering statements from relevant persons and such. We also perform a dual role in our duties in that we monitor and supervise the standards bureau as they take statements and such on various incidents which do include reports on police killings,” West explained.
#Body Cameras for police
Now, the knee jerk reaction to this high number of police killings would be to implement the use of body cameras on all field officers in the TTPS.
At the last police press briefing for 2014, acting commissioner of police Stephen Williams praised the actions of the individual in San Fernando who recorded an incident in which two Special Reserve Police officers (SRPs) mistreated a man in a wheelchair.
Yet when asked about body cameras for police officers, the “top cop” simply noted that the police service was still in the process of assessing the viability of this option.
“We are right now finalising an experiment with the body cameras to test their viability. It is just not about buying the cameras it is about managing how we use these cameras in the public domain,” Williams said.
He hoped the experiment would be completed in the early portion of this year, and from there, a decision would be made on how best to proceed.
Hopefully this means that field officers in the TTPS would indeed receive these cameras as the implementation of such equipment internationally has statistically seen a reduction in reports of police brutality and impropriety, and it would indeed be a solid foundation in rebuilding trust with the public as the truth would be easily accessible for all to see. There would no longer have to be extended investigative periods where the truth is being ascertained. It would be recorded digitally for examination.
President of the TTPS Social and Welfare Association Inspector Anand Ramesar is in complete support of this measure, noting that he believed that the service and its membership would benefit greatly as soon as the initiative was implemented.
“The use of body cameras is a contemporary practice for policing, and it is being used throughout the world in many police organizations and it is my belief that the TTPS will benefit greatly from it. The service should have access to such equipment in the immediate future, but we want to make sure there is a proper policy in place for the introduction of it. One which is not outdated and one where videos can be uploaded and saved to a server that will not be tampered with to ensure that the truth will always prevail,” Ramesar said.
Until this is done, the Association President said he remained in support of his officers in the exercise of their duties.
“The Association recognizes this year there have been a high number of police killings. However, one must also recognise that policing as a profession is as violent as it has ever been and police officers continue to run risks to their lives on a daily basis to ensure the safety of citizens of this country. So with this in mind, we continue to be a bit disheartened by the presumption that police have always acted with unnecessary force when they engage civilians and someone loses their lives. The TTPS continues to maintain a policy that we do not prefer an outcome whether a citizen, with a criminal nature or otherwise, loses their lives during an encounter with the police. What we ask for is that in these incidents police officers are not stigmatized or demonized when they act in these situations and the investigatory processes that are in place initiated, and that they take their course and are done in a timely fashion,” Ramesar said.
He then added, “the fact also remains, that the preferred weapon among criminal elements is the firearm and they are willing to use it against policemen and women. And when one looks at the murder statistics, one will see that many of these victims were killed by persons with access to illegal firearms. And while at the Association we will always be advocating a process to ensure a level of accountability, we also recognize and acknowledge that until body cameras are indeed introduced, there are the options of the professional standards bureau and the PCA to look into these matters, separate sometimes from the fact that there will also be a Coroner’s Inquest to look into homicides.”
A statistic which is not as easy to access, and which is also not as widely publicized through a combination of faults with the media and the TTPS, is the number of police officers who have been harmed this year.
In several of the confrontations which led to police killings, it was reported that officers had been harmed in the pursuit of their duties before they shot at their attackers. And while for the most part the names of these officers and the extent of their alleged injuries have been withheld from the public, the most publicized of these incidents for the year would be the shooting of PC Rondell Phillip.
Phillip was shot on November 4 along the Eastern Main Road in the vicinity of St Augustine. At the time he was with a party of officers on mobile patrol who were flagged down by an individual who claimed he had been recently robbed. The officers, who were part of the Northern Division Task Force sprung into action and attempted to detain two young men, however, they were fired upon.
PC Phillip was shot in the chest, with a bullet injuring his lung.
Unfortunately, he was not wearing his bullet proof vest at the time.
The officers returned fire and in this incident, Marcus Noel, 17, was shot and killed.
The actions of PC Phillip have been described as “heroic” and he has been commended for his dedication to duty and for putting his life on the line without hesitation, from acting Police Commissioner Williams, as well as Northern Division Commander Senior Superintendent David Abraham, among others.
Speaking to Express, Association President Ramesar noted that statistically, it was hard to say officially how many officers had been injured in the line of duty this year.
“There would have been reports from officers while on duty, while off duty but still responding to a crime. There would have been incidents in which injury occurred but the officers did not immediately report it. There would be incidents where officers would be psychologically injured or damaged because of what they witnessed and how it affected them. So while I cannot give an exact number at this point, I will haphazard a guess and say within the aforementioned parameters, dozens of officers if not hundreds. But the thing is, despite this, our officers continue to put their lives on the line for this country, and it is something for which each and every one of them must be commended for,” Ramesar said.