In 1996 when I set out to investigate the police killings of four young men in Denham Town and had concluded that there was no shootout as the police had claimed, the words of a woman from the troubled inner-city community, as told to soldiers, policemen, the late Tony Abrahams, other media personnel and me, placed everything in its proper context.
The series was this: The police had claimed shootout - encountered gunmen while on patrol, gunmen challenged, they fired on police, police returned the fire, at the end four men shot and injured, taken to nearby Kingston Public Hospital, all pronounced dead on arrival.
The matter had taken on political connotations with some PNP media commentators accusing me of making the police look bad because the killings had taken place in a JLP garrison. At that time I will admit a certain naivety in getting sucked into what the poor, the powerless and the criminal-minded told me about the police. So, any bias I had wasn't really party political as some saw it. It was more a bias in favour of inner-city residents.
All of my layman's investigations told me that two men were rounded up and executed at one spot. Two other men were chased, after they had sought refuge in houses nearby, and shot. Those "investigations" were never, at any time, set in stone. They were just findings based on my detailed observations. And because Tivoli Gardens gunmen had responded and had fired on the Denham Town Police Station, the matter was viewed purely from both wide ends of the PNP/JLP political spectrum.
But what did the woman say? As just another older, fearless resident of the area who knew the community, she said, "Mi nah sey di man dem a nuh gunman, but dem neva did have any gun dah day deh."
To translate, "I am not saying they are not gunmen, but on the day they were shot by the police, they had no guns." In other words, it was at no time a shootout.
If the woman's observations could be accepted as factual, would Jamaicans support the police killing known gunmen in such a situation? For better or worse, I believe the answer would be a big yes.
Let us face a few harsh facts. In the gun culture which has become ingrained in many impoverished, inner-city communities, there are essentially three types of people in possession of illegal firearms and ammunition.
First, there are young men who have guns "locked", that is, hidden away, but they are not necessarily rampaging gunmen going on robbery sprees. They will at times "rent out" the firearms to those so disposed, but that itself is problematic, as a "badder" gunman may just decide to hold on to the firearm permanently.
Second are the "innocents" in whose homes gunmen known to the community force them to stash their weapons. Third are the dangerous ones whose guns are never more than fifty feet away from them while they are in the community. When those exit the community on a "mission" such as a robbery or a murder hit, they do it in easily manageable groups of four or five.
The community and the police know them
In some inner-city communities from which armed killers emerge, whenever a killing is committed either outside or inside the community, within a matter of hours, both the members of the community and the police (through the wide network of informers) know who did it.
Even if the police were able to employ the best of the JCF's detectives to end up in an arrest, there is at best a greater than 80 per cent chance that eyewitnesses will never show up. Where there are no eyewitnesses, taking the case through the courts involves many years, a lot of state resources, and depending on the clout of the accused, files can sometimes mysteriously disappear or statements supporting the prosecution's case can face roadblocks when the actual court proceedings begin.
In the long run, everything is stacked against a successful prosecution. The crimes are too many, the detectives are too few and overworked, and the fear of reprisals of those in the communities is a conspicuous reality.
Knowing all of that, plus the fact that the death penalty for the most heinous of murders is only on the books but is no longer applied,
brand-name policemen play mind games with themselves. They say, "Do I allow this murderous scum of a human being to return to his community to kill innocents again, to rape children and slit old people's throats?"
The answer which comes back is all too obvious. Definitely no!
The problem with the brand-name cop who takes it on himself to "'protect the nation from marauders" as one such phrased it to me about 10 years ago, is that once he becomes the "saviour" of the nation, we run the risk of the lines becoming blurred between taking out murderers and the cop becoming caught up in his own idea of what real justice ought to be.
What is there to stop him from "taking out" a friend or a relative of the gunman? What is there to stop him from "kicking up, boxing up" just about any youngster taken to a police station for processing? If he feels pressured by his bosses at Hope Road, what is there to stop him from killing a "suspect" from the community, placing a gun on the dead body, making a claim that the deceased is the murderer, and of course, calling it a shootout?
In other words, once you turn on the machine, you will eventually discover that it has no "off" switch.
"Brand name" policemen, otherwise called "fearless crime fighters" are rare breeds. Gunmen tend to fear them more than they do other cops. Even the presence of a brand name cop in a police division can bring about a change of behaviour of the criminal network.
But loved as these few cops may be by wide sectors of the population, the reality is, there is much hate stored up against them by another set of people.