The recent murder of Fareed Ahmad and last year’s disappearance and subsequent discovery of Kelvin Usher at first blush bear no ostensible connections. A closer analysis into both incidents, however, reveals an underlying theme: the lack of public confidence and trust in the authorities entrusted to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the Belizean citizenry.
The Peelian principle developed by nineteenth century two-time conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Robert Peel, asserts that the legitimacy of any police force emerges from the transparency and accountability police demonstrate while undertaking their duties.
The legitimacy of the police force in turn ensures that public trust and confidence in the police force remains at salutary levels. Public confidence is a vital ingredient in ensuring that the police can effectively undertake their duty of protecting citizens. This is because public cooperation and trust are indispensable elements of combating crime.
It is my respectful view that better control of the use of force by the state operatives mandated to protect us must be attained in order to restore public confidence in the authorities.
Last year, Kelvin Usher’s disappearance prompted speculation that the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) was involved in what appeared to be an unexplainable sequence of events. Upon his discovery four days after going missing, it was later revealed that the young Usher had fled the marijuana field where he and his father had come under attack by the GSU. The incident was clearly one that suggested the use of irresponsible and excessive force by the GSU as questions arose as to why the GSU approached two armless individuals guns blazing, and why the GSU claimed to have been firing warning shots when in fact there were signs of bullet holes in nearby tree barks.
The unfortunate demise of Fareed, allegedly by Police Constable Brown, has again caused the public to fear deeper involvement by state officials. Speculations surrounding the incident suggests a state-sanctioned murder. This speculation was given impetus when the family of Ahmad revealed that it has in its possession text messages that showed that Ahmad was lured and coerced by members of the police special assignment unit. Ahmad’s family also revealed via interviews with his family that Fareed had been complaining of continued police harassment during the weeks leading up to his murder. His sister shared that Fareed had been the target of a search conducted on his vehicle at the Raccoon Street Police Station at which he complained that the police had used excessive force to subdue him. The circumstances surrounding Ahmad’s death have therefore painted an eerie picture.
On Thursday, the 11th day January 2018, police top brass and the Minister in charge of Home Affairs, the Honourable Mr. Wilfred Elrington, met with the Ahmad family in an attempt to quell their anxiety that state officials had any involvement in Ahmad’s murder. After the meeting, the Honourable Mr. Wilfred Elrington declared that Assistant Police Commissioner, Mr. Chester Williams, had personally conducted an investigation into the matter and that the results revealed that there was no deeper police involvement in the murder of Fareed.
The rumors surrounding the involvement of police and state officials are alarming and show that public trust in the state officials entrusted to protect us is at an all-time low. Citizens of Belize should never have to worry about those in charge of protecting us being involved in the perpetration of crimes.
The Ahmad and Usher incidents therefore beg the question: What has caused the Belizean citizenry to lose confidence in those entrusted to protect? The answer: primarily the numerous incidents of police officers irresponsibly using unlawful and excessive force. Twenty Seventeen was filled with countless incidents of police brutality.
In October of 2017 surveillance footage surfaced of a police constable brandishing his firearm in a Belize City Chinese restaurant to intimidate the owner because he refused to pay for his plate of food. After leaving the restaurant the police constable then proceeded to discharge his pistol, on Youth for The Future Drive. Ironically, the police constable was in Belize City receiving training. The incident was alarming, given the brazen and unabashed manner in which the police threatened the restaurant proprietor in front of other customers.
Last year video also emerged of police officers violently beating an individual who had clearly surrendered by putting his hands up and turning his back to the police.
In 2016 the US Department of State report on Human Rights listed the use of excessive force by security forces, among other things, as one of the most glaring human rights abuses in Belize. The 2017 report has yet to be released. It is expected that the use of excessive force by state authorities will continue to be listed as one of Belize’s major concerns.
Research has shown that three main deterrents exist to the use of excessive force by state officials. These are: Firstly, the Criminal law which mandates that an officer’s use of force should not be excessive as to constitute a crime, Secondly, Civil law which says that a person who suffers from unlawful excessive harm must be compensated and lastly, the fear of scandal that may come from being taped by the now omnipresent phone cameras.
The effectiveness of the first and last of these deterrents is, however, questionable in Belize. The Criminal law appears to be ineffective at stopping police brutality. On Wednesday, the 17th day of January 2018, News Five announced that the case against Police Constables, Norman Coye and Darnell Madrill, has been dismissed because the public prosecutor in charge of the case repeatedly failed to show up at court. Coye and Madrill were before the court for viciously opening fire amongst a crowd in San Pedro Town, in front of the famous Jaguar’s nightclub, which resulted in numerous individuals being hurt. News of the dismissal is particularly nerve wracking as no reason for the prosecutor’s repeated absence has been forthcoming.
The last of these so-called deterrents is also doubtful, as the scandal surrounding all the incidents discussed above has appeared to do little to ease the reported incidents of police brutality. On Saturday, January 13th, Mario Vernon, the grandson of Belizean patriot and “Queen-of-Brukdown,” Leela Vernon, was laid to rest after being killed by Police Constable Tevin Aranda under controversial circumstances that have once again sparked suggestions of abuse of force.
The Fareed and Usher incidents therefore share a common thread. Public confidence in the authorities entrusted to protect the Belizean citizenry appears to be floundering. Better control of the use of force by the state operatives mandated to protect us must be attained in order to restore public confidence in the authorities. Action needs to be taken now before it is too late.