The Tivoli gunfights that shook up Terrence Bent
Senior cop lucky he lived to tell the tale
This is the 24th in a series of close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of society.
SENIOR Superintendent of Police Terrence Stephen Bent has spent most of his life living and working in the inner city so fear is not something that readily gets its icy grip on him.
Bent, 44, was born in the South West St Andrew community of Greenwich Town, and his almost 23 years of serving the police force has been spent in volatile areas of the Corporate Area which include sections of West Kingston like Hannah Town, Denham Town, Matthews Lane and Tivoli Gardens.
But there have been times when the amiable senior police officer was made to sweat while he defended the island's security against ruthless criminals hell-bent on disorienting normal life.
One such incident in Tivoli Gardens in 1997 remains one of the most frightening experiences of his life, one that shook him up so much that he felt that his time on Earth might have been cut short.
“At the time I was an inspector at the Hannah Town station. SSP (Linval) Bailey, now deputy commissioner, was in charge of an operation when Tivoli was barricaded right around, chain link fence and everything,” Bent told the Jamaica Observer.
“So Mr Bailey decided that he would get the front-end loader from Mobile Reserve and assault the place in search of gunmen,” he added.
Bent's job was to lead a team of policemen on foot who would cover the front-end loader, driven by a constable Sortie.
The front-end loader proceeded down Industrial Terrace to go on to Bustamante Highway, but just as the equipment was about to start tearing down a section of the fence, there was an eruption of gunfire that threw the police party off.
“It was just gunshots raining all the time,” Bent reflected, explaining how he had to take cover behind a lightpost facing Bustamante Highway and Industrial Terrace.
“This incident was most terrifying to me. The shooting lasted longer than any of the other close calls and you didn't know if by the time help came, you would have been shot. There was constant gunfire, and when you looked at your foot you saw the concrete being chipped out by bullets and the shots chipping the post away, so you say to yourself eventually you are going to get shot or a bullet would even graze you.”
“You could see the gunshots hitting against the wall and you could hear the shots sounding,
like dut, dut, dut, dut on the lightpost, the wood was chipping off,” Bent said.
But the policemen were restricted in firing back at their assailants as female civilians, likely sent out to act as sheilds for the shooters, appeared.
“When I looked out, I saw a host of women around while the men were firing on us, so we couldn't return the fire because the women were there. The [gun] men opened fire on the front-end loader.
It seemed an impossible situation, one that they would likely not survive, but there was a glimmer of hope.
“What saved us was that the Bank of Jamaica had brought in some armoured vehicles and one of them had to come down to assist us by blocking off the roadway and staying with us. You could hear all the time the bullets chopping down the light post.
The man who saved the day for Bent and his team was Caple Williams, a district constable who drove the armoured vehicle into the line of fire and distracted the bloodthirsty gunmen.
After things calmed down, miraculously, without police casualties, Bent was given the nickname 'Brave Heart' by Williams.
A year after that harrowing encounter, Bent, a Kingston College old boy who has a Bachelor's degree in Human Resource Management and a Master's degree in National Security & Strategic Studies, almost fell victim to gunmen again. This time, it was during the West Kingston riots on September 23, 1998 after the convicted gangster Donald ‘Zeeks’ Phipps was detained by police and a soldier was killed in violent action.
'Zeeks', the recognised 'don' of Matthews Lane and its environs had been detained on suspicion of illegal possession of firearm, wounding with intent and attempted murder, for which charges were brought the following day. But an angry crowd gathered outside the Central Police Station where he was being held, demanding his release and the police called on Phipps to quell the crowd from the upstairs balcony of the police station.
But other forces loyal to Phipps would not be placated and were creating mayhem and wreaking havoc at other parts of West Kingston and Bent got caught in one such incident.
The day in question, downtown Kingston was in uproar as gunmen loyal to the Matthews Lane don let loose their ‘cannons’.
“Former SSP Antonio Gaynor (former cricket umpire) was in charge at the Denham Town station and anywhere he was going he wanted me to come with him.”
So Bent joined the police team that hit the road, driving from Denham Town toward Hannah Town, knowing that men from Hannah Town, some parts of Denham Town, Oxford Street, Tulip Lane and Pink Lane were operating in collusion with men from Matthews Lane.
“Mr Gaynor, two other policemen and myself were travelling along Hannah Street and turned onto Upper Rose Lane, right behind KPH (Kingston Public Hospital), when a barrage of gunfire hit the vehicle which I was driving.
“Mr Gaynor had on a ballistics helmet and I just saw when the windshield shattered and a shot hit his helmet and he slid back in the seat. The force of the bullet threw him back.
“So I put the vehicle in park, dropped back my seat and came out of the vehicle through the back door. By this time we were taking fire from Rose Lane and Tulip Lane, because we stopped at the corner of Upper Rose Lane and Tulip Lane, so we are taking fire from two sides — a barrage of gunfire. The vehicle was shot up but eventually we got out of there unharmed,” Bent said.
News came back to him later about the incident suggested that gunmen from Hannah Town who were said to have been involved in that shooting retreated when they found out that Bent was a member of that police party. He had earned the respect of residents, including suspected gunmen while he worked at the station.
“The guys from Hannah Town never wanted to fire on me. I heard that they said that because I was in the vehicle, they never fired more shots. That was my policing district and I got on well with everybody. That saved the day,” he remarked.
Another incident close to that time in the same Hannah Town area, proved too close for comfort for the decorated cop.
This time he was with three other policemen doing foot patrols in Denham Town, Matthews Lane, North Street, near to KPH and around Princess Street.
“Around 11 o'clock that night as we approached Slipe Pen Road going up to Hannah Street, we saw a car parked on the road outside Ms Olga's bar.
“I became suspicious right away, because at that time of night the bar is not normally open. As we walked toward the bar, two policemen went on the parallel side and I took a position on Hannah Street, we positioned so that there could be no crossfire.
“There was a man in the vehicle and one of my men said 'police, man in the vehicle', and by the time he said that, from my peripheral vision, I saw some movements from the back door, and by the time I turned it was pure shots being fired at me. I fired back but it didn't hit any of them.
“When the thing calmed down, the lady in the bar said that some men had just come in to rob the place and when they heard 'police', the car sped off and the men started firing. The morning when I went back, I saw 15 bullets in the wall behind me,” he said, admitting that he looked at himself, glanced at the bullet-riddled wall of the bar and wondered how he had not been shot. A stop-sign at the intersection of Hannah Street and Slipe Pen Road with a bullet hole remains as evidence of the shooting.
Although he has come close, Bent has never been shot, but several policemen have been shot, some fatally, around him.
As an on-the-ground crime fighter, Bent has been exposed to other chilling experiences that placed him under pressure.
In another West Kingston incident, the infamous 2001 clash between security forces and gunmen, led by the flamboyant former Senior Superintendent of Police Reneto Adams, left 27 people dead after two days of fighting.
Bent had been forced into action to lend support to what was then called the Crime Management Unit, which was in charge of the operation.
“I was at MPD (Motorised Patrol Division) at the time and I was asked by Mr Bailey to head a team into the command post at Darling Street. The team included SSP Colin Pinnock. We went in there under fire. We met some policemen at Hannah Town, drove down to Darling Street, we had to get low and proceed to the command post the Saturday night.
“When we were there we saw the JDF personnel and more police officers. In the morning we woke up and there was a lot of gunfire and explosions. There was a lieutenant named Silvera, now retired from the JDF, who was telling us to stay low because you don't want to get any sniper fire. By the time he said that, shots rang out and he took a hit in his vest.
“The bullet came through a piece of steel and hit his vest and he fell. We thought that he was dead. During the course of the day we had a lot of gunfire. In the afternoon, it was more explosions sounding like grenades or bombs and you could see the building shaking and sand falling off the columns.
“Whatever they were throwing was shaking the building. It was more than just an ordinary layman's gunman attack. It was very highpowered artillery coming at us... I saw JDF men running up and down and I am saying to myself, if those men who are trained for war were running up and down, what am I to do.
“Eventually it died down, but it was a tumultuous experience. You were confined to a space, taking gunfire right through the night,” Bent said of the controversial clash.