Sat | Mar 2, 2024

High-level probe misfire

- Pundit calls term ‘a throwaway phrase’ police use to pacify public - Lack of updates creates trust deficit between police and public, says advocate

Published:Sunday | March 26, 2023 | 1:34 AMLivern Barrett - Senior Staff Reporter
Shaquille Higgins was made to apologise for “disrespecting” Prime Minister Andrew Holness in a viral social media video.
Shaquille Higgins was made to apologise for “disrespecting” Prime Minister Andrew Holness in a viral social media video.
Mickel Jackson, executive director of JFJ.
Mickel Jackson, executive director of JFJ.
Public commentator Judith Wedderburn.
Public commentator Judith Wedderburn.
Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay.
Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay.

A St Andrew woman said she expected to get answers when the police brass announced in 2020 that a “high-level” investigation was under way to find out why cops turned her away from a police station in the middle of the night after she showed up to...

A St Andrew woman said she expected to get answers when the police brass announced in 2020 that a “high-level” investigation was under way to find out why cops turned her away from a police station in the middle of the night after she showed up to file a report of domestic abuse against her spouse.

This is one of the countless times the leadership of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), past and present, have publicly promised similar probes, but to date the state of many of those investigations is still unknown.

The Police High Command typically orders a high-level investigation in high-public interest incidents involving cops.

According to police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay, a high-level investigation signals that the case has been elevated from the local level to the divisional, area or national headquarters of the police force where it is likely to benefit from additional resources.

At the time of the November 2020 incident at the Constant Spring Police Station in St Andrew, nightly curfews, which began at 9, were among the measures imposed under the Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA), the legislation used by the Government to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19.

Around the same time, a St Andrew man also reported that he was turned away from the Matilda’s Corner Police Station when he showed up after 9 p.m. to make a report that thieves had broken into his car.

A high-level investigation was ordered by Commissioner of Police Major General Antony Anderson following media reports about the incidents, including claims by the woman that the cops also threatened to arrest her for breaking the law, a reference to the DRMA.

Both cases were assigned to the Inspectorate of Professional Standards and Oversight Bureau (IPROB), the quality control arm of the police force led by Assistant Commissioner of Police McArthur Sutherland.

“There are no orders under the Disaster Risk Management Act and it is not the policy of the JCF that any member of the public be turned away from any police station, even with a curfew in effect,” Anderson said at the time.

But more than two years after she gave a statement to investigators, the woman, who did not want her name published, told The Sunday Gleaner that she knows nothing about the case or the outcome.

She acknowledged that she is aware of a case “similar to a court case that is happening”, but said she has not been told whether it was completed.

The St Andrew woman said she expected that the police would have done their investigations and that she would have known the result, whatever it is.

No action taken

Her case is among an untold number of investigations for which the police have failed to provide updates, after declaring a “high-level probe” was launched. It also mirrors a wider concern by the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) about accountability in the Jamaican police force.

INDECOM is the agency established by law to provide oversight for the security forces and correctional officers.

Between 2019 and the end of last year, INDECOM referred a total of 222 cops to IPROB for disciplinary action, the oversight body confirmed in response to questions submitted by The Sunday Gleaner last week.

The referrals stemmed from 151 cases.

Last year alone, 77 cops were referred for disciplinary action, the highest for a calendar year during the four-year period, according to the data.

Thirty-two policemen and women were referred for criminal and disciplinary sanctions over the same four-year period arising from 21 cases.

The complaints typically include assault, threats, neglect of duty, death in custody and wounding, the oversight agency said.

But in a scathing 2021 analysis, the oversight body noted “there has not yet been a single disciplinary hearing concluded for any of the cases referred for the period January 2018 to June 2021”.

A similar analysis in 2017 also found that the police force had failed to conduct a single disciplinary hearing for any of the 138 cops referred by INDECOM arising from 97 cases over a seven-year period between 2010 and 2017.

A vast majority of the cases investigated by INDECOM result in no criminal or disciplinary charges against cops, the oversight body said.

‘High-level transnational’

In December 2019, a “high-level transnational” investigation was set in motion after an exposé by this newspaper about a police inspector who was allowed to quietly resign from the force amid allegations that he tipped off an accused gangster about an operation to apprehend him.

A police statement issued at the time said: “It is our expectation that, at the conclusion of this investigation, charges will be laid against anyone who played a role in the matter, whether they are serving members of the JCF or not”.

Similar probes were also ordered in December 2021 after murder accused Orville Purnell “simply walked out” of the Kingston Central Police lock-up amid allegations of a $3-million payment; and in July 2021 after cops reportedly compelled a St Ann man, Shaquille Higgins, to apologise for “disrespecting” Prime Minister Andrew Holness in a viral social media video.

Purnell is wanted in St Lucia for murder and illegal possession of firearm and ammunition and remains on the run.

The police commissioner, in a public statement issued at the time of the Higgins incident, reminded cops that apologies should not to be “solicited or coerced” from members of the public.

Then there was the case in October 2021, when a high-level probe was launched after two prisoners mysteriously vanished from the lock-up at the Freeport Police Station in Montego Bay, St James. It was alleged that a cash payment of $5 million was made to facilitate the escape of the men, Ainsley Woodburn and Alex Scott.

Woodburn, who was awaiting trial for a double murder, was killed during a shootout with the police in St Ann in March 2022; while Scott, who was facing charges of wounding with intent, remains on the run. He was later named as a major suspect in the killing of the complainant in his wounding case.

Up to late yesterday, there was no response from SSP Lindsay to questions submitted by The Sunday Gleaner on Thursday seeking updates on the investigations.

Not an ordinary investigation

While noting the daily challenges faced by police detectives, public commentator Judith Wedderburn said she is “beginning to feel as if ‘high-level investigation’ is a kinda throwaway phrase that you just say to give the impression that you really plan to do something”.

A high-level investigation should mean that police brass are engaging detectives at the “highest levels” of the force, including those assigned to specialised divisions, Wedderburn asserted.

“It means that you have the resources in place because high-level investigation doesn’t mean that you take up the phone and make a call,” she said.

Wedderburn acknowledged, however, that there may be “concrete reasons” some of the investigations are not undertaken or completed.

Costly apology to the PM

Charles Ganga-Singh, one of the attorneys for the St Ann man reportedly compelled by cops to apologise to Prime Minister Holness, said in the nearly two years since the incident, his client has not been contacted by the police “in writing or by word of mouth” to make himself available for an interview.

“I am of the simple view that if my client, the subject, was not at all interviewed then no investigation can start. I don’t know how the police can have an investigation without interviewing the subject unless that’s a new procedure by the police,” Ganga-Singh told The Sunday Gleaner.

The incident could end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars in damages to Shaquille Higgins.

The St Ann man, through his attorneys Ganga-Singh and Bert Samuels, has already filed a lawsuit against the State seeking damages for false imprisonment and various breaches of his constitutional rights.

The attorneys have also filed an application for leave to seek a default judgment on the basis that lawyers for the State have not filed a defence and that the time for them to do so has elapsed.

Widen the trust gap

Human rights advocate Mickel Jackson said failure to conduct promised investigations or give the public timely updates will widen the trust gap that already exists between citizens and the security forces.

Jackson, who is executive director of the human rights lobby Jamaicans for Justice, said it could also send a signal that justice is not swift for some citizens or that “some lives are more important than others”.

“That may not be the case, but in our ongoing dialogue with residents they have articulated this issue. Frequent updates make citizens feel that there is a sense of social order in the country,” she said.