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Dying In Police Custody

We were surprised, as were many Bahamians, when police informed the country on Friday and Saturday that two suspects died in custody.

The Nassau Guardian understands that a suspect in an attempted armed robbery, who sources identified as Matthew Jacob Pratt, 33, of Nassau Village, died around 4 p.m. at the Central Detective Unit on Friday.

Housebreaking suspect, Aaron Rolle, 20, of Ross Corner, died at Quakoo Street Police Station early Saturday morning.

The Royal Bahamas Police Force has adopted a totally non-transparent posture when suspects die in custody. It only says that the matter has been transferred to the Coroner’s Court and it answers no questions, usually not even wanting to release the name of the person who died.

What Bahamians assume when suspects die in police custody is that they were killed during or as a result of police interrogations. Such an act is unacceptable and is either manslaughter or murder.

There is a backlog in the Coroner’s Court just as there is across the criminal justice system. The court’s verdicts are also advisory and do not automatically lead to criminal charges even if the coroner rules that criminal conduct likely led to the death. Therefore, many think that by police automatically sending matters to the court and answering no questions, the force is trying to cover up possible misconduct by its officers.

The commissioner of police, minister of national security and prime minister have to decide what kind of force they want. Officers should know that their interrogation techniques should not lead to the death of suspects. There are always intellectual disagreements regarding what are reasonable and legal forms of physical interrogation of suspects. The Bush administration in the United States, for example, was of the view that waterboarding was not torture. The Obama administration disagrees and thinks it is. What we can all agree on, however, is that killing suspects in custody is wrong and absolutely unacceptable.

It is possible that the men died for reasons not having anything to do with the actions of police. We are not saying definitively that police killed them; the force has revealed little information on the incidents. Police silence, though, leads members of the public to suspect the worst.

The problem for the commissioner and executive branch of government is that Bahamian police commonly use force in interrogating suspects. It is a widely known but never publicly acknowledged fact. Therefore, when an officer uses too much force or the suspect is just not able to bear it, and he dies, the government and force have little to say because the interrogation practices that led to the death are systemic.

Police interrogation tactics have to be brought under control so that we do not have circumstances where suspects die in custody from police actions. And when it is determined that excessive and unauthorized behavior by officers has led to the death of a suspect, those responsible should face manslaughter or murder charges.

If officers know that nothing will happen to them when they beat suspects to death in custody, they will keep doing it. The leadership of the force and Cabinet can cause change on this issue if they care.

If they don’t Bahamians will continue to die in police custody from time to time due to police actions.

Editorial from the Nassau Guardian

Posted in Headlines

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