Owen Ellington: Chief guardian of a nation at war with itself
— Part 1
BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive editor — special assignment email@example.com
OWEN Ellington, for his sins, is the 27th police commissioner of Jamaica. And in the script written by his ardent admirers, of which there are not a few, he is already the best of them all.
But the job of top cop of Jamaica is no popularity contest. Ponder aloud, if you will, that most reasonable of questions. How does Owen Ellington sleep at night, if uneasy lies the head that wears a crown? For, as commissioner of police, he must shoulder the unpalatable, nay, ominous burden of being chief guardian of a nation.
Forget dubious claims of having more churches per square mile than any other country in the world, this is no Sunday school by any stretch of the imagination. This is a nation at war with itself. Not only must Ellington dispatch his men and women, often to their deaths (oh if only he could avoid it) but he is duty-bound to keep the secrets a nation cannot tell — about the dark deeds of many of its favoured sons and daughters.
Even the casual onlooker — and this is not about the obvious strong physical features — can see upon the briefest perusal of his life that Owen Lloyd Ellington was born to be a policeman. Though it might not have seemed so in 1980 when he joined the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) at the height of the general election campaign still described as Jamaica's bloodiest.
"As part of my training I was visiting sick and wounded policemen at the Kingston Public Hospital day after day, night after night, walking through the gunfights. There was turmoil on the streets at the time," he relives the moment.
Ellington's journey, however, did not follow a straight line, meandering through the years as achievement after achievement defied the typical policeman's rise up the ranks.
In fact, when outsider Commissioner Colonel Trevor MacMillan appointed him as staff officer, a sort of personal assistant but more, there was consternation among the senior officers that a junior was allowed to accompany him into the hallowed halls of the Police Officers' Club, a place reserved for the gazetted men — and women, few as they were — in black caps.
Ellington was never appointed deputy commissioner, as was typical of career policemen climbing through the ranks, although he acted for some time in the position. That made him possibly the first cop to jump from assistant commissioner to commissioner, if the technicality can be pardoned.
He has always been able to win the confidence of his superiors with a work ethic second to none, and no one was surprised when the then commissioner summoned him to inform him that he was putting him in charge of security for the Jamaica leg of the International Cricket Council Cricket World Cup, his biggest, toughest assignment up to that point.
If Ellington easily won over his superiors, his time in the top job would also be marked by big challenges and controversy. The implosion in Tivoli Gardens in Kingston's west end, when security forces went after the former strongman Christopher 'Dudus' Coke, for extradition to the United States in May 2010 — barely a month after his confirmation — would be Ellington's almost cosmic welcome to the job.
And the calls for his resignation, most notably from a revered human rights activist, but others as well, would detract from the steady hand on the wheel, though he would take it all in stride because such is the man.
Is it any surprise that among Ellington's favourite policemen are the storied Keith 'Trinity' Gardner, who "brought intellectual rigour" in helping to tame inner-city West Kingston in his time, and more recently Radcliffe Lewis, the straight-talking traffic cop who made a name trying to tame the 'Wild West' which are the streets of the capital city.
But let us pick up the Owen Ellington story, inasmuch as we can tell it, in rustic Glengoffe, St Catherine, July 27, 1962, 10 days before Jamaica gained Independence from Britain, home of all previous commissioners up to then. It is there that this man of destiny, third of eight children, was born to father, Boswell Samuel Ellington and mother, Petrona Blake Ellington, of blessed memory.
Glengoffe, St Catherine, 21 miles from Kingston was as rural as they come. Ellington would grow up to appreciate its majestic hills and notice how hard it rained — just as well because it was a farming community. He attended basic and primary schools, remembering that there were functional amenities such as a health centre; post office; People's Co-operative Bank; library; police station; market; Public Works Department.
And why are we not surprised by the incessant testimony to a bygone era? Ellington, too, speaks passionately of the peaceful times when all the children of the community were the responsibility of all the adults. The roads were properly maintained. The teachers, policemen, pastors, nurses, all the professionals set good examples for the children.
"It was a very civil community where people respected people. Indeed, the village raised the child," he recalls. "When you look at all the amenities there, you can understand why the children were well brought up. It was the perfect setting for anybody to grow up.
"Today, the only remaining ones are the police station and the post office. So what can you expect of the children growing up there now?" he laments.
Of all the professionals he had watched and admired, Ellington had his boyhood eyes on the policemen from as far back as he could remember. He enjoyed playing football with the cops behind the station and smiles even now when he recalls how he and the other little boys did not want to 'salad' the policemen out of fear.
"When we did so we would quickly apologise. It was fear borne out of respect for them," he says.
He made a mental note of how the policemen carried themselves and how they were respected by the entire community. But unlike most boys, it was a note that would not slip out of his mind as he grew. In 1979, at age 17 and without informing his parents, he and two schoolmates — now Senior Supt Anthony Castelle and Sergeant Donovan Hemmings — went to enlist in the police force.
"We had left for school that morning, saying we were going to try out for the police force. We took the bus to Duke Street in Kingston where we did a test. We didn't tell anybody we had passed. Then one night a policeman in uniform turned up at my house in Glengoffe. My mother was fretting that I might have done something wrong, until he told her that I had passed the test," Ellington relates.
"My mother had pinned her hopes on me becoming a priest or a soldier and I was kept under 'house arrest' for a time. But I really had a fascination for the uniform, the gun, the car. Of all the professionals in the community the cops looked the sharpest. They were well built and the people believed in them. I wanted to be
Ellington had school exams in June/July and so could not enter the force until August. But even then he was a year younger than the required age of 18 and that presented a problem. Yet, not wanting to lose an enthusiastic young man at a time when few were choosing the force for a career and even fewer had the courage to decide to face gunmen and danger, they referred him to the Force Cadet scheme.
He was part of a batch of 60 recruits but they wanted at least 150 to start the training, so he had to wait a while. Finding the waiting period frustratingly long, he wrote his resignation and applied to the College of Arts, Science, and Technology (CAST), now University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech).
But the barracks inspector was not taking 'no' for an answer. In dramatic fashion he informed Ellington that there were only two ways that a policeman could leave: either through dismissal or in a hearse! That was the end of the CAST story, for now.
Later he would pursue a Bachelor of Science Degree in Human Resource Management at UTech and follow that up with a Master of Science Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI).
When the police training eventually began, it was November, in the midst of Jamaica's bloodiest election campaign. As was their duty, it was the cops who were on the front line, fighting desperately to preserve the safety and security of Jamaicans, as the two major political parties fought a bitter ideological battle.
"As part of my training I was visiting sick and wounded policemen at the Kingston Public Hospital day after day, night after night, walking through the gunfights. There was turmoil on the streets at the time," he remembers now.
He spent two years in training at the then Police Training School in Port Royal, now the Police Academy at Twickenham Park, St Catherine. And graduated in 1981 just around the time when reggae superstar Bob Marley succumbed to cancer.
"I was part of the police guard of honour at the official funeral service for Bob in the National Arena," he recalls of the event, which is etched in his mind. The reggae icon is one of his musical heroes.
Upon graduation he was first stationed at the busy Half-Way-Tree Police Station and recalls that he made his first arrest on his birthday, July 27, 1981. It was to save a man who was being beaten by a mob for stealing a camera on a bus. "I held onto him and kept the crowd off. I told the owner of the camera to accompany me to the station where he retrieved the device."
At Half-Way-Tree he did guardroom duties, patrol as well as court duty, spending one year there and during which time he met the impressive Judge Derrick Hugh who used to keep court up to 10:00 pm, not wanting to have a backlog.
"I learnt from his work ethic, which is not something that is common today. He didn't want to leave things till tomorrow, saying you don't know what tomorrow will bring. I am like that. I clear my desk before going home at the end of the day, because I don't know if I will be able to come to the office the next day.
"In this position you have to have self-discipline and learn to manage your time. You don't come to the office and underperform then turn around and blame it on something else. This is my philosophy," Ellington reflects.
When he had completed his assignment at Half-Way-Tree, it was to, of all places, the Office of the Police Commissioner that he was sent. It would be the first of three assignments there in which he would work alongside revered top cops such as William 'Bill' Bowes; Joe Williams and Herman Ricketts, in the early days of his career.
On reflection it seemed that Owen Ellington was predestined to occupy the lofty quarters of the Police High Command. Working in close proximity to the top cops, it seemed, had set in motion the training that would be necessary for a time to come and a life-changing event yet unknown to him.
Up to that point he had given little thought to the typical constable's ambition to become commissioner one day. But it was pardonable, unavoidable even, to wonder why he had, already so soon, landed here at 105 Old Hope Road. The answer, my friends, was blowing in the wind.
Friday: The army men take over