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LEGAL WOES

Police want help with fees for representation before INDECOM

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor - special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, December 03, 2013    

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THE Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is seeking Government funds to hire lawyers to represent cops who are dragged before the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) for acts committed in the course of their duties, according to Police Commissioner Owen Ellington.

Ellington, who is to meet with security minister Peter Bunting today to flesh out the details, said law enforcers are accumulating huge debts as they dig deep in their pockets to retain lawyers when they appear before INDECOM for interrogation, either as suspects or witnesses.

Ellington, who was addressing reporters and editors at the weekly Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange at the newspaper's head office in Kingston, said it costs a cop more than his/her month's salary for legal fees for only one appearance before INDECOM.

"They are borrowing money, going to family members getting loans which they can't pay back, and all of this is being done because they went out there, put their lives on the line to protect our fellow citizens and they are now being treated as criminal suspects and have to defend themselves," Ellington said.

This, he reiterated, is taking a huge financial toll on many of the country's front-line crime fighters.

"And more than anything else, this is what impacts on the morale of the officers; not any fear of oversight or concern that they are out there doing something wrong, but it is just the constant appearance before INDECOM, the need for legal representation, the cost of that representation, and it is all incurred by acts committed by the officers in the course of their duty," Ellington said.

"It is going to require some research to get us close to an appropriate sum of money, because we would have to look at the number of incidents we have in one year; how many officers are likely to be in a team involved in an operation; how many of them would be required by INDECOM as suspect or witness; the frequency of appearance before INDECOM, and the cost per hour of retaining lawyers," he said.

As such, Ellington said it will take some time to work out the details and to determine if a sum of money will be put in the budget for disbursement, either through the legal services unit, the representative groups or directly from the security ministry.

Ellington argued that while the law enforcers do not feel threatened by the independent investigation body, they are concerned that INDECOM wants to interrogate police involved in fatal shooting incidents without legal representation.

"We disagree with that, because while we believe that no police is above the law, we also believe that no police is below the law, so the same standard applied to civilian criminal suspects must be applied to the police when they are under investigation and likely to be charged criminally," he said.

"Just imagine a policeman who is working in a division like St Catherine North or Kingston West, where just about every day you can be involved in contact with gunmen; INDECOM treats them as suspects. So every time they are involved in anything like that, even if they are not directly involved, they are summoned to give a statement and face interrogation, and prudence would dictate to them that they avail themselves of legal representation."

Also of concern, he said, is INDECOM's interpretation of certain sections of the law which conflict with the police's interpretation.

"For example, we maintain we have primacy at crime scenes because we are the only body of men and women employed by central government to investigate crimes, arrest offenders and put them before the court. So if there is a crime scene which also turns out to be an incident scene for INDECOM, we maintain that we have primacy to investigate that crime," he insisted.

However, INDECOM is said to have a different interpretation, and this, Ellington said, is something Parliament needs to address through legislation.

Ellington also maintained that police force is the principal body of men and women employed to protect the lives and property of others, and every day their lives are put on the line in doing so.

"Each day we get about 30,000 calls into police control. Of that number, well over 300 to 400 require response... where citizens are under threat of physical violence and each year the police face, on average, 600 gun attacks from criminal elements, and this does not include knife and machete attacks and other forms of attack," he argued.

According to the police commissioner, every time an armed individual is challenged there is the potential for use of deadly force.

"In the last few years we have averaged over 200 such incidents where the police have had to use deadly force and citizens are killed," he said.

While this number is among the highest rate of police killings in the world, Ellington pointed out that Jamaica's murder rate is also among the highest in the world, with the rate of gun killings being the second highest after El Salvador.

The commissioner pointed out that the police have been able to arrest well over 2,000 armed people every year.

"We don't kill 2,000 armed people for the year, and so it is only in instances where people threatened the lives of our officers that deadly force is used," he insisted, adding that the police have taken some 700 guns off the street since the start of the year, but have not killed 700 persons in the process.

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