'The bullet was a fraction above my heart'
Veteran crime fighter 'Cowboy' Knight survives at least three shootings
This is the 33rd in an award-winning series of close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of whom are in prominent positions of the society.
HE remains one of the fittest senior members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force — a former schoolboy footballer — whose rugged approaches to opposing players earned him the name 'Clappie' in his days of playing for his school.
At that time, the student of the privately operated Highgate Continuation High School in St Mary — which had current attorney Hugh Wildman on its register — exhibited an authoritarian attitude that forced others to play with caution when he was on the field.
The man: Derrick George Knight, known popularly now as 'Cowboy', reflects on how his life could have changed, had he not resisted a surgical procedure recommended by doctors.
Knight, 53, had been shot three times in the line of duty, and grazed on a further three occasions.
A bullet fired by one of his colleagues while a police team fought criminals in the Corporate Area came close to lodging in his heart.
As serious as that sounds, the infamous shoot-out at the Coronation Market in West Kingston days after Hurricane Ivan struck Jamaica in September 2004, which he described as his most dangerous experience, left him in no man's land and groping to find his footing — literally.
Knight, now a senior superintendent of police in charge of the St Andrew Central division, saw his future almost go up in smoke, but moved swiftly to douse the flames fanned by hatred and disrespect for law and order.
"There was a feud between Tivoli and Matthews Lane men at the time," Knight said in referring to what might have caused the trouble.
"The morning after Ivan, we decided to check on the effect of the hurricane and went down the West Street area in the vicinity of the market and ran into about 20 men dressed like how we were dressed, all in raincoats.
"They had on the same colour coats like us and we thought they were police. It was only when we saw one that looked like a Rasta that we knew they were gunmen," he said.
"We had a shoot-out, which started at West Street, straight into the market. I got a shot in my left foot with an AK 47 bullet and almost lost my foot, as we were in the market for over two hours in the shoot-out and nobody could come in to assist us. We were firing shots until we could only fire individual shots. So I would fire one shot, another man would fire two, that man would fire one, and so on... because the men surrounded us," Knight stated.
In order to get out of the market, Knight and his men, who were running low on ammunition, had to team up and fire a barrage of shots simultaneously at the gunmen who were closing in on them, while hustling toward one of the exits.
When the smoke cleared, Knight had to be taken to the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) where he spent four hours without treatment, because there was no electricity at the institution.
"It was [Cornwall] 'Bigga' Ford who came down in a car and said 'Cowboy, you can't stay ya so, man'. He took me in the car through water that was up to the bonnet and took me to University Hospital," Knight related.
"The two Ford brothers, both doctors (Japheth and Jephtah) came up there, but the people at University only looked at my foot and gave me some medication to go back on the road. So I said 'how you giving me some medication to go back on the road and everywhere locked down'?
"By the next morning, gangrene took up my foot. When I went back to UWI, the intention was to cut off my foot. I had to call then Commissioner Francis Forbes, who in turn called the minister of national security, Peter Phillips, and they had discussions with the doctors that led to my foot being saved," Knight said.
"But originally, they wanted to take the easiest way out at the time by cutting off my foot," added Knight, who said the fact that he is not now an amputee is due to Bigga Ford's action.
While he regarded the incident at Coronation Market as his most serious, the scar from the first time that he got shot still brings back unwanted memories.
It was two days after the October 30, 1980 general election, regarded as the bloodiest in Jamaica's history as just over 800 lives were taken in bitter fighting between the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party.
Knight was working at the Bay Farm Road command post with a security team that included soldiers, which responded to a call at White Lane off Penwood Road.
"We chased some men into the lane and I was accidentally shot by one of my colleagues. I thought that I would have died, so much so that I threw away the SMG (Submachine gun) and ran like a thief. When I reached Penwood Road nobody could start the vehicle, everybody panicked," Knight revealed.
He was eventually taken to the KPH in a Redimix concrete truck, where it was confirmed how close the bullet had come to claiming his life.
"The bullet was a fraction above my heart. I was shot by an SMG and the bullet came from my back and went straight through. In those days the police were not wearing vests, and under normal circumstances a shot like that would have killed a man," he said.
"I looked down, saw a speck of blood, my back was burning me and I said to myself, this is a dead man. I am a dead man. I spent three weeks in hospital and was off work for about six months," Knight said.
For the man from Harmony Hall, St Mary, who passed the police entrance test while he was doing his final-year examinations at Highgate Continuation, serving the police force is something that he would do over again if he had to live his life once more.
Incidents like the two, which almost sent him to an early meeting with his maker, have done little to deter him from his mission of fighting crime, despite the concerns raised by his relatives in Jamaica and overseas.
Even before the 2004 shooting, he had taken a bullet in his foot in the 1990s during a shoot-out in Waterford, St Catherine.
His days of working out of the Flying Squad division of the Criminal Investigation Branch connected him with the late Tony Hewitt, who became his mentor.
Within six months of being at the Flying Squad, he made detective and got steady promotions for his role in apprehending criminals, seizing guns, among other actions.
But the journey was filled with challenges.
"I interfaced with a number of criminals while I was at the Flying Squad. One of the early ones was Christopher Henry, otherwise called 'Natty Chris'. He was implicated in the 1980 Gold Street massacre where it is alleged that he killed four persons and injured 13," Knight said.
"In 1984 we went at him in one of the biggest shoot-outs in Arnett Gardens and he was subsequently shot and killed. I came very close to losing my life that day because he ran into a passage and ran into my direction, fired several shots that chipped off the walls," he added.
The year 1996 was significant for Knight, as he received the Badge of Honour for Meritorious Service from Governor General Sir Howard Cooke. It was rare, in the sense that Knight was then a sergeant, but his actions that same year in dealing with criminals, and work in previous years, led to the national honour.
Marlon Henry from Greenwich Farm, who was wanted for several murders, was cut down by a team led by Knight when the gangster's team engaged about 10 of Knight's colleagues in a firefight along the Portmore Causeway.
Later that year, Knight and another police crew chased two men who fired at them from a yard along Marl Road in West Central St Andrew, shooting one of them (Clifton Howard) and recovering a firearm. The police car used by the law enforcers was shot up.
A shoot-out in Craig Town, South St Andrew in 2005 when he and his team confronted five men armed with M16 rifles and who were said to be stealing bikes, caused him great anxiety.
The shoot-out lasted more than two hours and by the time Knight got home, he had to calm his shaking body when he considered how close the gunmen had come to wiping him and his men out.
Knight was given the name 'Cowboy' while he was stationed at Olympic Gardens, starting in 1994. It was a community that was experiencing over 200 murders a year, out of the 300 that were recorded for the St Andrew South division in which it sits.
Community policing, he said, was introduced by him while he trekked the landscape.
"When I started community policing then, I went to a friend named Cash, who was also known as 'Cowboy', and told him that I wanted one of his caps, one of his boots, one of his braces and his spurs.
"I put on those, especially on a weekend, and started working Olympic Gardens. The confrontations did not end in any significant amount of fatal shootings, but I walked all the tracks that these men walked. The zinc fences jumped by these men, I was there," he said.
"From that time I got the name Cowboy, and it started to spread. I held a number of men with firearms and took them in and I started to build that relationship with the community, putting on treats for the children, having functions for them, and meeting with them.
"Those economically challenged communities give rise to a lot of abuse. When the females came to the station, I was the person who dealt with their complaints. This built the information flow so the guns are recovered.
"That first year, we only had four murders in Olympic Gardens, down from over 200 and that was what started the process of my getting the medal of honour for meritorious service. We reduced murders in Olympic Gardens to under 10 per year during the period," said Knight, whose transfer from the area years later was met with a demonstration by citizens.
Knight has spent a challenging 34 years in the constabulary. He lists the St Andrew South division as the toughest in which he has served, followed by Montego Bay and Clarendon, but of all the tight spots that he has been in, he will remember most the Coronation Market showdown.
"The Coronation Market incident had a tremendous impact on me and my men. The fact is, we were inside the building and were extremely agitated, nervous, and not sure if we would have come out alive," he said.
"Those two hours in the market had more psychological impact on me than the one shot that I took in my chest. It was two hours of constant firing with high-powered weapons and you can't move, and every minute the men were coming in closer and closer on us.
"We all believed that it would be the end, because men were saying to me 'Super, me out of rounds', so we had to share up our rounds to keep off the boys. It was really intense. We laid flat on our bellies, we had about 10 rounds each and we decided that the only thing we could do was fire a series of shots in the direction of the men and slide on our bellies out of the market.
"It was only God who took us out of there. The men were from Lizard Town and some names were called. Some of them were taken out by other members of our organisation," Knight said.