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Home Editorial Child victim – individual or systemic flaw?

Child victim – individual or systemic flaw?

Amandala, Fri. July 9, 2021
Page 10 story, “US gives Belizean police investigation training” — “A recent travel advisory from the US Embassy noted, ‘Violent crime – such as sexual assault, home invasions, armed robberies, and murder – are common even during daylight hours and in tourist areas… Local police lack the resources and training to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents. Most crimes remain unresolved and unprosecuted.’”

Page 26 story, “Precinct One moves to King Street” — “The Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams recently told local media that the time to negotiate and table discussions with gang members is now over…”

Sun. July 18, 2021
The tragic death on Wednesday night, July 14, in Placencia of 14-year-old holidaying student, Laddie Gillett of Belmopan, at the hands of police, has rocked the conscience and sentiments of an already traumatized citizenry to its core. What next? Where have we all gone wrong; and where do we go from here?

Whenever there is a case of gross abuse of a citizen by the police, who are supposed to be the ones to protect us against lawbreakers, there is a groundswell of righteous indignation against the particular officer(s) by the general population. And in the situations where a person is deemed to have been killed without just cause by a police officer in the line of duty, the cry of angry citizens is automatically for the maximum charge of “murder” to be levied on the accused officer. Unfortunately for grieving relatives and angry citizens, such has seldom been the case, as the benefit of the doubt has usually gone to the accused, who is then charged with manslaughter. Such cases of police killing citizens are not common; but when that happens, it is a sensational event, eliciting massive media coverage, and the voices of the general citizenry are raised for justice on the part of the bereaved family. The latest event, involving a mere child, with all the innocence and promising adventure of blossoming youth, is just too much to bear, and begs the question: Must we continue to endure such atrocities, or is there something we can do that might change the tide?

Such an enormous tragedy, where a precious life is lost for no good reason, and a remorseful officer is destined to live with the burden of that loss on his conscience, should be a very rare occurrence indeed. Rare because the community/institutional memory should be so indelibly imprinted that every police officer would have that on his mind each day he goes on duty; and there would be a general, unspoken pledge and commitment to guard against any careless response that could see such a tragedy repeated. Alas, such a calamity has NOT been so rare in Belize, after all. In fact, it seems like “just the other day”. It has happened again, and again.

And more often than not, when the results of police investigations of the case are sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for instructions, the charge that follows is manslaughter. The officer is placed on interdiction; and before too long, he may be right back on duty.

Perhaps, an aspect of this seemingly soft approach is an acknowledgement of the stressful and sometimes traumatic nature of police work. Especially in the current Covid-19-induced climate of escalating crime, frustration among the ranks of police officers may be at an all-time high, considering that: they are not highly paid; they often work in tough conditions; they are subject to being transferred from district to district, and oftentimes have to hitchhike home; they can’t leave because there are no other jobs available; some of them make a little extra by moonlighting, exposing themselves to other bosses, some of whom may be unscrupulous; they are battling a drug trade in which some high-ranking officers, politicians and businessmen are suspected to be involved; when they make an arrest, the lawyers often beat down their strongest cases, allowing known criminals to “run rings” around them; and on top of that, there is the dread of political interference in their jobs. For the best of men, it is not an easy task being a police officer. For those with suspect personality traits, the citizenry is at tremendous risk. And the list of tragedies keeps growing.

Back in 2003, there were the cases of Ruben “Pony” Alarcon and Darnel McDonald, both killed by police. The police officer who killed Alarcon at the Caye Caulker Police Station was charged for murder, but was later found guilty of manslaughter. Only a week later, on June 16, 2003, Darnell McDonald, 28, was shot dead by police while he was driving some friends home from a night at Celina’s club in Ladyville. The officer, originally charged for manslaughter, was convicted of manslaughter by negligence, and paid a $4,000.00 fine.

On February 12, 2005, 21-year-old SJC Sixth Form student Leslie Rogers, Jr. was shot in the head and killed on Amara Avenue by an on-duty police officer who was on interdiction for over a year before being arrested and charged with “manslaughter.” He was later acquitted.

In the case of construction worker Stephen Buckley, he survived a crippling wound to the head caused by a shotgun blast from a police inspector in broad daylight back in June 2010. The officer was actually charged with “attempted murder” and “dangerous harm,” but almost ten years later, although Buckley had received some monetary compensation, the case was still languishing in court, while the officer had remained on interdiction, and was later promoted to Deputy Commander.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 16, of 2019, thirty-six-year-old Allyson Major, Jr. was in his pickup on Regent Street being hotly pursued by police in their mobile. A bullet from a police weapon hit Major in the back of his head, and he died the following day from his injuries. Fifteen days later, a police corporal was charged with “manslaughter by negligence.”

In his remarks to the media upon the arraignment of his client, defense attorney Richard “Dickie” Bradley made some interesting comments on the Major case.

Considering the public dissatisfaction with the manslaughter charge, Dickie observed that:
“It is possible that from the investigation, there is not enough evidence to say that this corporal intentionally killed Allyson Major, a young man, father, teacher and husband who has lost his life senselessly.

“In this case, the police are responsible. The police in Belize are either not training the officers enough, or they have no strict protocol — when to use force, when to fire your gun, when to pull out your firearm… Now how do you use a gun on somebody who is driving away from you….?”

In the “wild, wild west,” there was talk of some “cowboys” being “trigger happy.” Such individuals need to be kept far away from firearms, and in fact a strict screening psychological evaluation should be part of the selection process for all members of the police force.

Whatever has been done to ensure our police officers, to a man, are mentally able and prepared to avoid a recurrence of such most regrettable, detestable and unnecessary use of lethal force against harmless citizens, it is obviously not enough. For, here we are again.
There may be one aspect of the problem being overlooked — structure. It is human nature for team members to develop bonds of friendship and support in times of distress. It is natural for officers to want to “cover” their fellow officers who may display reckless tendencies. And in terms of investigations following an unfortunate incident, some may not be fully cooperative. And this knowledge might give comfort and perhaps even embolden the actions of the callous or reckless officer, who might not be so daring if he knew that NOT his own police brethren/sistren, but an independent investigative body would be looking into any complaints from the public about possible police misconduct. And while we are looking in this direction, why not further “free up” the hand of the Commissioner of Police, by having him no longer answer to a politician (the Minister of Home Affairs), but instead to an impartial broad-based citizen board consisting of representatives from the political parties, social partners, etc. Perhaps then, without the Commissioner reporting directly to a member of the House, the elected representatives of the people will feel a greater obligation to steer clear of corruption and interference in police work.

We do need some well thought out “amendments” to our Constitution, with more emphasis on protecting citizens’ rights rather than infringing upon them. And while it is important to hold individual police officers accountable, these recurrent incidents suggest that we should at least try to make some changes to the system. Because, Lord have mercy, we have hit rock bottom, with the killing of a little child. Reports are that, running towards the hotel where his family awaited him a couple minutes after the 10:00 p.m. curfew, the unarmed young teenager was shot in the back and killed by the bullet from a police officer’s gun.

On Friday, July 16, the officer was charged for “manslaughter.”

Our sincere condolences to the family; and rest in peace , young brother, Laddie Gillett!

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