Let me begin by saying that I love the police, that the police are my friends (literally and figuratively). My father is a former police officer, who served for a few decades. That said, criminality amongst the ranks of the Royal Bahamas Police Force is seemingly becoming blatant, so much so that it is persistently infringing upon the Constitutional rights of Bahamians. Over time, the Royal Bahamas Police Force has been accused of near systemic patterns of police brutality, verbal abuse and outright misconduct, clearly in violation of citizens’ rights.
In the wake of the recent, much-publicised incidents of purported police brutality, one can only assume that such incidents are occurring due to the shoddy vetting procedures done when recruiting officers, and the hiring of immature, undisciplined officers (some of whom are mere gangsters in uniform). Our society has been inundated with allegations of police brutality where certain officers are accused of having cultivated an air of terror and having displayed vile, sadistic behaviour that has laid bare the flaws in police recruitment and training as well as revealed a lack of professionalism. That being said, there are still some who are sincere, hardworking officers whose professionalism is second to none.
In incidents only separated by hours, 25-year-old Jamie Smith and 21-year-old Aaron Rolle both died while in police custody. According to the autopsy reports, Smith died from asphyxiation and Rolle from blunt force trauma.
I am no defender of the criminal element—in fact, I believe that if one does the crime, he should do the time and/or get his just desserts—but injustice and a lack of accountability is unacceptable.
As I watched the NB12/Cable Bahamas news report on Wednesday, I was stunned to see how National Security Minister Dr Bernard Nottage ran like the wind, nonchalantly blazing past grief stricken mothers and relatives of persons who had died in police custody. I had to look at the television screen closely to make sure that Dr Nottage didn’t have on running spikes as opposed to dress shoes.
Of course, PM Perry Christie—being a politically shrewd navigator and a man of the people—stopped by and comforted the grieving families who were assembled opposite Parliament, demanding answers. Indeed, politicians like Mr Christie are on the endangered species list as so many of today’s politicians are clueless, uncompassionate and pretentious. Christie’s political savvy and his ability to show concern for people is part of the reason why he is one of two of the Bahamas’ last political titans (the other being former PM Hubert Ingraham).
People want to know what happened to their children and if Dr Bernard “Lightning Bolt” Nottage is running like a cheetah, what sign does that send to the populace? Over the years, I’ve always had the greatest respect for Dr Nottage, but his actions on Wednesday were cowardly, disrespectful and lacked empathy. I can almost guarantee that my former law lecturer Keith Bell—the State Minister for National Security— would’ve demonstrated compassion and shown a recognition and understanding for the plight of those families. If Dr Nottage cannot face the people, he should hit the eject button, make way for Mr Bell’s ascension and go home.
In August 2007, three cases heard in the Supreme Court—two murders and an armed robbery—were tossed out after judges instructed jurors not to return guilty verdicts because it was determined that the confession statements of the accused were obtained unlawfully and under duress.
The beating of Desmond Key by police led to him falling into a coma and ultimately dying. The killing of Andros native Kenneth Russell (in September 2007)—by a policeman—raised many questions about the police’s use of force and so on.
In 2009, the highly suspicious death of 15-year-old Michael Knowles, who was found dead in a cell—hanging from a cord—while in police custody, caused much political and social hoopla. According to the police, Michael Knowles committed suicide and was being held under suspicion of housebreaking and stealing.
Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin nobly attempted to accelerate the investigative process into the death of the teenager, particularly as the case has engendered much public outcry. In her zeal to shine light on the issue, Mrs Martin—whose inner-city constituency was next door to that of the deceased teen (then St Cecilia)—did not comply with a directive of the Speaker and as a result was “named” and suspended for two sittings. In fact, the issue continues to be suspect.
I have met Michael Knowles’ distraught mother who, like these families today, merely said that she “only wants justice” and was seeking scientific confirmation of the reason/s for her son’s demise and an inquest into her son’s death.
Internationally, there have been several highly publicized incidents of police cruelty. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was plagued by incidents of police brutality, where campaigners were bludgeoned with nightsticks and blackjacks, attacked by police dogs, washed down and pummeled by high powered water hoses, and falsely arrested and racially profiled. However, press exposure of these incidents did lead to public outcry and to more sympathizers joining the cause.
The 1977 death of South African freedom fighter Steve Biko, is largely believed to have been caused by the hands of police officers, particularly since Mr Biko played a role in numerous anti-apartheid demonstrations.
Within the last 15 years, the brutal beating of Rodney King (March 3, 1991), by four white Los Angeles police officers sparked public unrest. When the four officers that were caught on tape were charged and acquitted, the 1992 Los Angeles riots erupted, particularly since many blacks felt that justice had not been served and that they were being disenfranchised. Eventually, Mr King accepted a $3.8 million settlement from the city, and the officers were charged in federal court for violation of civil rights (only two were convicted).
Some Bahamian police officers have gained a reputation for bludgeoning citizens and using excessive force, carrying out false arrests, psychological intimidation and expletive-filled verbal assaults.
The lawlessness in local law enforcement is further underscored by accounts of the intensive, cruel interrogation tactics allegedly used to obtain involuntary confessions and that disregard the concept of due process. On Thursday, three senior police officers told me of incidents at the Central Detective Unit’s Headquarters, where brutal acts were carried out, for eg, the alleged use of tasers and other forms of electric shocks such as connecting one end of a vehicle jumper cables to a charged battery and affixing the other end to a subject’s genitals/testicles; placing and tightening plastic bags (bags that fishermen use for fish) over the heads of handcuffed suspects; tying an anchor rope around a suspect’s neck whilst the bag is over their heads and, when the suspect passes out, an oxygen tank is supposedly on standby to revive a suspect; wrapping a cutlass/machete in a sack to prevent external marks/cuts and hitting persons on their shoulder blades and feet; purportedly using a “vice grip” or pliers to squeeze a man’s testicles; allegations of water boarding; supposedly hitting women in their breasts; battering persons with phone books or their fists/feet and allegedly placing guns to the forehead or a revolver in the mouths of subjects and playing Russian Roulette, etcetera. I was informed by these officers that certain interrogators would ask a person in custody a question, then suddenly get up—whilst that person is tied down—and kick them in the chest if they do not accept the answer proffered. I was told by these officers that much of the alleged beatings in police custody purportedly happen in the briefing room at CDU or in the room that houses the homicide squad.
Instances of police misconduct contradict the concept of due process, which is that suspected persons can only be proven guilty in a court of law, not through the use of blackjacks and extreme force. It is because of cases of brutality and shoddy police work why some evidence is disregarded and some persons, who may very well be guilty, are set free. The Attorney General’s office has had numerous cases rejected (after no case to answer submissions or a weak evidence at a Preliminary Inquiry) due to false confessions obtained by police coercion or beating and also because of the destruction, contamination and fabrication of evidence in their haste to close a case. Frankly, the callous, extra judicial killing of defenceless suspects and innocent people and the allegations of the inhumane conditions in blood-stained, urine-scented police holding cells should be of grave concern to the Ministry of National Security and the Bahamas as a whole.
In the Bahamas, it appears that from the moment certain young officers don the uniform they adopt an authoritative, confrontational attitude, riding roughshod as if they are the lone authority over society. But, I do not only blame the young officers as there are some unfit, more seasoned officers who are negatively influencing “green”, impressionable entrants and inculcating this aura that police officers are above the law.
An independent commission or civilian review board must be established to investigate the police and restore public confidence, particularly since I believe that internal commissions lack accountability and it is nearly impossible for the police to adequately police themselves. In the wake of the suspicious deaths, the government should hastily enforce the aspect of the Police Act that calls for a board of civilians—appointed by the Governor General and hopefully bipartisan— to oversee all investigations into complaints against police officers. Furthermore, community activists should adopt the approach of the North America-based Copwatch groups that, according to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, observe and document police activity while looking for signs of police misconduct and/or police brutality.
Establishing an independent commission and a branch of Copwatch locally would ensure that protection of persons against search and seizures that are not judicially authorized or supported by probable cause or a substantiated suspicion of criminal activity, protect against arbitrary detainment and protect an individual’s legal rights. The Ministry of National Security and the private sector should collaborate in the purchase and installation of CCTV—not just to deter criminals but also to provide visual evidence to confirm or contradict police and other reports—and mount video cameras in cops’ cars. That said, the police must not be handicapped and should be able to employ force when appropriate. Locally is there a force continuum in place to set the levels of appropriate force in response to someone’s behaviour?
As cases of alleged police brutality are investigated, investigators must no doubt account for the wall of silence that has pervaded police culture, particularly the failure of an officer to report another police officer’s misconduct in an attempt to honour the officers’ unwritten code of silence. In such cases, those officers must be made aware of their liabilities and the Complaints and Corruption Unit must confront those officers who are a part of that criminal subculture without leniency. Any mafia-type code of silence to subvert justice is unacceptable and can only affirm the impression of certain officers as being no more than gangsters in uniform, with a license to carry a firearm and patrol their old turfs with impunity.
The public must rise up and demand action to ensure transparency and prevent the immediate entombment of the most recent purported police brutality cases among the growing backlog of coroner’s cases.
The police have yet to explain the death of Kristoff Cooper, 22, whose car crashed through a wall and into a house (in 2009) following a police chase. Lately, an autopsy revealed that Mr Cooper died from a bullet wound to the head. Who shot Mr Cooper and why was he shot? Why was the impression given that Mr Cooper died from a car crash?
Was the autopsy report of Michael Knowles ever published? When was the last time that Knowles was seen alive by police officers on duty at the East Street South Police Station? Was Michael Knowles afforded his legally mandated right to have either his parent, legal guardian or legal counsel present while he underwent questioning at the station? Why was Michael Knowles, a minor according to law, allegedly not permitted to be seen by his mother at any time during the course of his detention? Was Michael Knowles actually charged by police for stealing and housebreaking? Why was Michael Knowles not afforded police bail on Friday, May 30, despite the fact that he was not reported to have been found in possession of a weapon at the time of his arrest? Were there any signs during his detention, which suggested that Michael Knowles was in a state of depression, thereby posing a risk to his personal safety?
Are there any closed circuit television recordings within the various police stations that could provide footage of those who entered and exited the holding area where the most recent suspects were situated?
If the Central Detective Unit is capable of recording both interviews on video/audio, why is it that all interviews aren’t mandated to be recorded? Is the unit’s failure to record all interviews a wretched excuse to continue with an archaic interrogative format that often result in suspects alleging police abuse?
Is it true that many suspects who are arrested are not afforded the opportunity to contact a lawyer before being interrogated? What about due process?
While I support a no-tolerance approach to enforcing the law, there are numerous people, particularly young men or the underprivileged, that can attest to an air of fright and mistreatment they feel when dealing with local cops. Certain groups of rogue, local officers seem intent on demonstrating their power, conducting themselves like rude, uncouth brutes and often being unpleasant and unsociable, all in their quest for subjugation and control. The police’s job is to protect and serve, and any hooligan-in-uniform found doing otherwise should be fired and/or jailed.
Indeed, there are many in the police force who should attend BahamaHost classes, which would offer a great deal relative to their interaction with people, service and so on.
We must dispel this notion, among many less affluent Bahamians, that justice is an aspect of society that is only afforded to the wealthy or the politically connected.
The issuance of a “use of force continuum” is said to keep the police’s use of force in check by setting the levels of force that appropriately corresponds to a suspect’s behaviour. This is an element of policing that must be explored by the police force and the government. Is there one in place?
Paul Moss and the Nolle Prosequi
On Wednesday, I was at Bamboo Shack on Nassau Street and ran into Paul Moss. Mr Moss and I have always had a cordial relationship, going all the way back to my high school days. At that time, we discussed the nolle prosequi that was issued by the Attorney General’s office to a couple, relative to a gun charge.
Mr Moss, an attorney, was charged some time ago for possession of a shot gun without an updated license and he noted that the matter will likely be finalized next month. Whilst giving me permission to write about our discussion, he stated to me that he—a businessman—and one who has contributed positively to society should have been given a nolle, as he was arrested on the licensing queue (in an attempt to renew his licence which was overdue) and did not have a handgun or a firearm that had not been previously licensed.
Frankly, Mr Moss may have a point particularly since he has not shown that it was his intent to violate the law, but perhaps did not have an opportunity to renew his gun license (which is up for renewal every December). So, will Paul Moss be given a nolle? Or, is his issue not a “national security” matter? Should he seek legal representation that could perhaps engender such a favourable result?
By Adrian Gibson
Author of the “Young Man’s View” column in the Tribune newspaper