Owen Ellington: By what yardstick will he be judged?


BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive editor - special assignment

Friday, February 28, 2014    

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A year out of police training school, Owen Ellington found himself working in the registry of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) Administration Branch at 105 Old Hope Road. That, by itself, was nothing to write home about.

But working in such close proximity to the commissioner of police, Bill Bowes, who was just next door, was uncanny. Ellington hadn't quite worked out a plan as to where he wanted to go in the police force, and he was taking everything one day at a time.

He was young, only 20 years old, and it was still too soon for him to grasp the significance of his location and to foresee the wonders and uncertainties that were being scripted for him. In time, however, Owen Lloyd Ellington would be back in this space as the man himself, receiving the salutes, the accolades and, yes, the slings and arrows that come, predictably, with the office of police commissioner.

But as of now it wasn't time yet. This was merely a dress rehearsal for the grand coronation which was still somewhere down the road. Now he must learn the business, by observing these top cops, sometimes going through the fire to be tempered.

"The eight years at Administration Branch were very fruitful. I worked directly with Deputy Commissioner Ruddy Hamilton who taught me most of what I know. He was the sharpest, brightest, most knowledgeable policeman I have ever met. I learnt from him that 'there is no problem that can't be solved if you are prepared to consult'. Even now I consult with him on complex police management and policy matters," says Ellington.

Driving fear into the hearts of gunmen

Commissioner Bowes retired soon after Ellington's arrival at 105 and was succeeded by the controversial Joe Williams, a man Ellington described as "a straight shooter from the hip who believed in taking the fight to criminals and driving fear in the hearts of gunmen". Williams was also a disciplined commissioner who was "tough and uncompromising".

Williams was succeeded by Herman Ricketts, who placed strong emphasis on training and development. "He believed that the police should engage the public in explaining strategies and so on. He didn't believe that police leaders should be desk-bound."

In time, Ellington would develop a close relationship with Herman Ricketts, having long talks with him and working on speeches of the retired cop who had an active public-speaking life after the force.

In 1990, Commissioner Roy Thompson took Ricketts' place, bringing with him "a heart for the men and women on the frontline". "More than most, he agonised over the safety and welfare of the members of the force," Ellington recalls.

An outsider from the army

Then came Col Trevor MacMillan. This was 1993, and P J Patterson was prime minister, having won his own mandate after taking over from Michael Manley, who had stepped down the year before because of ill health. The image of the police was mud in the public eye, with allegations of rampant corruption and officers who carried out the bidding of politicians. The Patterson Government's policy was to depoliticise the force and the feeling was that it would take an outsider do the job.

But MacMillan was to run into a centuries-old culture in which promotion to the top job was routinely from the internal ranks, not to mention residual resentment of army men. The newcomer was a decorated soldier from the Jamaica Defence Force. In other words, the idea of taking orders from a rank outsider did not sit well with the traditionalists.

Somewhat away from the fray, Ellington was acting commander of the University of the West Indies police, after stints at St Mary (Port Maria and Highgate) and St Andrew North (Stony Hill). He knew very little about MacMillan and imagined that the new commissioner knew even less about him, if anything at all. But MacMillan had done his homework and had heard enough about him.

An inspector at the time, Ellington was more than a bit surprised when he got the phone call from MacMillan, informing him that he wanted him to be his staff officer, a sort of personal assistant who would handle his research, administrative and quasi-legal functions, and travel with him in Jamaica and overseas, while keeping him abreast of day-to-day developments.

That was a new role for the force, and Ellington, now in this second stint at Old Hope Road, created the parameters for the staff Officer post and guided its evolution. Every commissioner has had once since, he adds.

But the gazetted officers found something else to resent about MacMillan. He had brought with him his staff officer, a mere inspector, to the hallowed halls of the Police Officers' Club, a place reserved for the men and women in black caps! But the new commissioner held his ground.

By the end of MacMillan's tenure, the public was far happier with the force. Ellington agrees that the JCF had been politicised, and corruption and indiscipline were very visible at many levels.

"I believe that he substantially depoliticised the force to the extent that it is no longer an issue. We made substantial progress in the areas of discipline, anti-corruption and accountability. That is something which should also be credited to Commissioner Francis Forbes who came later," he recounts.

A year after, Ellington was promoted and put in charge of the Motorised Patrol, which was at the centre of a debate about its retention. Ellington was on the side of the believers in keeping the division, arguing that crime knew no boundaries and criminals had to be pursued across divisional jurisdictions, hence the need for the Motorised Patrol.

"I didn't believe in operating silos but rather in having cross-cutting capabilities which the Police High Command could deploy when needed, such as the Motorised Patrol, the Mobile Reserve and the Criminal Investigations Branch headquarters staff. Moreover, if we broke them out into divisions, we would lose flexible reserve capabilities."

Ellington got what he asked for. The division was upgraded and he was put in charge. He asked for an attachment to an overseas police force to learn best practices and was sent to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for what he described as a great week of learning.

Back in Jamaica he divided the capital city into Metro North, South and Central, with 22 patrol zones, each being a manageable chunk of space in which the emphasis was on community policing and citizen assistance. He developed a training programme for patrol officers and wrote a Standard Operating Procedure Manual which were non-existent before.

"I encouraged patrol officers to routinely submit intelligence, anonymously if necessary, to investigators and introduced incentives for those who did. I worked with a very highly motivated team led by George Quallo, who did a marvellous job, despite the ups and downs," Ellington remembers.

Keith 'Trinity' Gardner

His first divisional command came swiftly thereafter when he was put in charge of St Andrew Central, recalling that his big focus was on preventing rather than solving crime. And he felt justified when he saw the crime rate plummeting at the end of his two years, 1995-96.

Another success chalked up, he was dispatched to the Inspections Branch, followed by the Remand Centre in 1998 and West Kingston in 1999.

In January 2004, he took over at the Area 4 HQ from the famed Keith 'Trinity' Gardner, whose life here was the stuff of which movies are made. Gardner had a brother who was on the other side of the law.

Gardner developed a reputation as a feared and fearless crime fighter who was known to send for persons of interest who would meekly turn up at the station at the specified time. Woe betides those who did not.

Gardner, who now lectures at university and is one of Ellington's heroes, was credited with drastically reducing crime at a time when 60 per cent of murders and robberies took place in the western belt of the city which stretched to Rockfort, 13 miles from the heart of Kingston.

"Trinity helped to change that. Now most of Kingston is as safe as the rest of the country, except for small enclaves in the east and central areas, thanks to his presence, reputation, leadership, intellectual vigour and street policing" says Ellington. He noted that there had been an almost 40 per cent drop in murders and other serious crimes in the city over the past four years.

Ellington practised community ideas such as leading his team periodically on foot from the bottom of West Street, talking with the people, hearing complaints about policemen which would be acted upon and turning off stolen lights and water. Sometimes they would seize a gun or two along the walk. He also encouraged police divisions to support each other by mutual assistance in the fight against crime.

Before that, in 1999, Ellington went to the Services Branch, then to St James in 2001 where his approach was similar to St Andrew Central -- the emphasis on crime prevention with big dividends in falling murder and general crime numbers. He reinforced the need for leadership on the frontline.

"This is fundamental in forming healthy relationships with communities. If people on the frontline are not showing care and respect for the community members, all we are doing will be in vain. I push this now," Ellington reflects.

His stop at Traffic Headquarters in 2003 was memorable for the noticeable reduction in road facilities that came with his focus on moving violations, as against the previous concentration on small traffic offences such as faulty headlights and the like.

He also arrested people who did not pay their traffic tickets through development of a computer database, replacing the paper-based system. Traffic cops could now check a motorist's history by calling in their driver's licence number. In the first year, 10,000 arrest warrants were issued.

"We used to strike on a Friday so that the errant motorist would have to spend the weekend in jail. That sent shivers up their spine." Soon, warrants fell.

In 2008, he was called back to headquarters by Commissioner Lucius Thomas to head the crucial Operations Branch, from where the JCF's major crime prevention programme is co-ordinated.

The ICC Cricket World Cup

It was from there that Ellington was given his biggest challenge up to that point when he was put in charge of security for the ICC Cricket World Cup, which meant travelling all over the Caribbean to meet with counterparts, as well as to other cricket-playing countries. "Only then did I discover that Jamaica had made commitments to the ICC that meant we had to pull out all the stops to bring this off successfully," he said.

"It must have taken tons of courage to sign such an agreement," he adds diplomatically. "We had to educate the entire force on what we had to do. We had to begin before the competition started to ensure we got it right, because the world would be looking at us."

He makes special mention of the current chief of defence staff of the JDF, Major General Antony Anderson, with whom he worked on the Cricket World Cup security.

Ellington had the good sense to seek partnerships with all the major sporting and entertainment bodies in Jamaica, to study their crowd management measures at events such as Carnival and Sumfest. The multi-agency approach factored in search of fans, venue sweep and lockdown, but with attention to the comfort and convenience of the fans.

"It took great effort. But we staged a good tournament and kept quiet about it, even though there were 850 attempts to breach security to get contraband, including ice-picks and knives, into the stadium. That included one foreign journalist who sent his ID outside to bring in an unaccredited person," Ellington recalls.

"From that we were able to build out a legacy strategy that we have been able to apply since at major events, such as Boys' and Girls' Champs. Most are now ending incident-free as a result."

Another army man comes

Not surprisingly, Ellington was promoted to assistant commissioner of police on contract in 2005 and offered the entire Operations portfolio to run three years later. By this time, a second JDF man, Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, had succeeded Lucius Thomas as commissioner. Ellington was apprehensive because the Operations portfolio was under the command of a deputy commissioner of police and he was his junior!

But he got over his concerns and immediately set to work, seamlessly merging the Operations, Crime and Security portfolios into one, fulfilling a recommendation from a previous Strategic Review. Since then, however, the security minister found that the person in charge had too weighty a responsibility and gave instructions to split it up once gain.

"I felt that the person who made this recommendation needed more experience in a national police force. Jamaica does not have a Federal system as in the US, for example. So whatever is assigned to the one DCP, he or she has to handle everything."

The Operations portfolio provided a vantage point from which Ellington would be launched into the top job. In 2009, Hardley Lewin resigned, setting the dramatic stage for his replacement. Still a junior to the deputy commissioners in line for the job, on November 7, 2009, Ellington was asked to act as commissioner while the search for a new top cop ensued.

This had probably never been done before. To smooth any ruffled feathers, it seemed, he was appointed to act as DCP. But he says that any apprehension he had about the situation was short-lived as he got the solid support of DCPs Charles Scarlett and Jevene Bent. "I worked with all of the senior officers so I know they were professionals and very capable officers."

One of his first acts was to call Glenmore Hinds off vacation leave, promote him to DCP and ask him to head up the Operations portfolio.

Who should be police commissioner?

Meantime, the Jamaican society wrestled with the issue of whom to select as commissioner. Many names were "tipped" to get the job. But on the afternoon of April 5, 2010, the Police Service Commission officially announced the appointment of Owen Lloyd Ellington as commissioner of police.

A 47-year-old past student of Glengoffe High School had reached the zenith of his career as a policeman. But there was no time to rest on his laurels. Less than a month after his confirmation, Tivoli Gardens imploded. Police had been dispatched to arrest Christopher 'Dudus' Coke for extradition to the US on allegations of gun-running and drug smuggling.

Emboldened criminals from across the country massed in Tivoli Gardens, mounted barricades and set two police stations afire. Then Prime Minister Bruce Golding declared a limited State of Emergency and the army was sent in to take charge. Casualties were estimated at 73 persons dead, including police and soldiers.

Ellington believes that Tivoli "presented an opportunity to show how to manage such a situation" and that he himself was prepared for such. He did not regard that as a setback. "I don't see setbacks or obstacles in life. I see opportunities to triumph or make a difference. I believe police training prepares you for everything."

Ellington is satisfied that he has been making that difference. In the four years since becoming commissioner he had seen the rate for serious crimes such as murders, rapes and robberies, tumble; the profile of the JCF had improved; more illegal guns were being seized; a stronger, more capable leadership of the force was developing.

He believes that the fight against crime is not a fight for the police alone. He attributes a good deal of the crimes to the abject poverty in some communities marked by a lack of jobs and poor infrastructure. He knocked the practice of some in the society to "throw every problem at the police", but said some of those problems had to be solved by other agencies.

The media, in particular, had not "availed itself of all the transformational efforts being undertaken in the JCF", he complains. "All the surveys show that the citizens agree with the police that it's the gangs that are mainly responsible for the crime levels."

Asked his view on claims of extra-judicial killings by cops, he says: "I do not regard deaths during criminal confrontation with the police as 'extra-judicial' killings. They are justifiable homicide. The law of homicide defines this category of killings. I also believe that every case should be thoroughly investigated to establish whether the loss of life at the hands of the police meets the standards for legal and moral justification."

No one questions the fact that it is a jungle out there that Ellington must send his men and women into, often to face their death. Who is to say if he is the best of the 27 police commissioners? What will we use as the yardstick to judge his tenure? Is it the murder rate? When he was born around Independence, the rate was at 100 murders. When he took over it was 1,700 a year.

There is much, dear reader, to ponder, not just by Owen Ellington, but by the nation of which he is chief guardian and protector. And in any event, the verdict is yours.





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