With another six months in the year still to go, the number of people killed by police so far in T&T is precariously close to its highest figure in the last decade.
The deaths of Joel Jacob, Israel Clinton and Noel Diamond in Second Caledonia, Morvant, on June 27 saw that figure rise to 43, and it may rise to 44 should an investigation conclude that police gunfire killed Ornella Greaves, a pregnant mother of five from Beetham Gardens, when police clashed with residents on June 30.
Only 2010, which saw 49 people killed by police and 2014, which saw 46 people killed, have seen more people lose their lives at the hands, or rather the bullets, of police officers in T&T.
Director of the Police Complaints Authority David West confirmed that since 2014 they had received 214 reports of fatal police shootings which have lead to 156 investigations. About 20 per cent of those 214 reports took place this year alone.
The shooting deaths of Jacob, Clinton and Diamond were significant in that, unlike most other incidents, it was caught on CCTV and the footage was available to the public. That video footage which appears to depict the men surrendering to police before being fired was the catalyst for massive demonstrations in and around the city over a week ago, as well as the apparent unification of rival gangs calling for justice last week.
The recent police killings have raised the question about the use of body-worn cameras by officers.
On Tuesday, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith said he had ordered 1,000 body cameras, which he would mandate for use by task force members in the Port-of-Spain, Western, Northern, North Eastern and Central divisions.
Police body camera programme launched 3 years ago
Almost three years ago, the pilot police body camera programme was launched in T&T under then acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams.
Prior to last Tuesday’s announcement, the overall usage and impact of the body cameras remained relatively minimal with respect to day-to-day policing.
Guardian Media confirmed that the body cameras were in use to an extent by the T&T Police Service (TTPS), with the Inter-Agency Task Force among the units utilising the device. This would put T&T ahead of Jamaica, who despite also having the equipment for years, had up to last month not seen their police officers equipped with the cameras.
In a press conference a few weeks ago, Griffith confirmed that 180 body cameras were in use by the Police Service. He was responding to claims by the Movement for Social Justice, after another alleged extrajudicial killing in June, that the cameras were not in use. With only 180 body cameras currently available to the Police Service, this means in a force which has over 6,500 officers, less than three per cent of them can actually be equipped with the cameras.
According to Griffith, that’s not the only challenge. The body cameras have certain limitations and, as such, he preferred the footage provided by mounted cameras on the police vehicles.
He said mounted cameras give a wider view and it provides real-time video footage fed back to the operational command centre. “That means those 100 vehicles patrolling 24 hours a day we are able to patrol and monitor everything that is fed back to the operational command centre in real-time in contrast to the body cameras. The body cameras are something that is done after the fact.”
In the contentious shooting in Morvant, however, while the police vehicles involved were equipped with mounted cameras, they were reportedly facing the opposite direction from where the shootout took place.
Questions have also been raised about whether the footage captured by the camera can assist the officers in determining what actually occurred.
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Griffith, commenting on the footage, said it was unclear from the video if any of the suspects made an attempt to reach for a firearm before the officers fired.
“We automatically seeing one person put his hand in the air and then after he is no longer there. We do not know what happened with the third person who was in the backseat, we do not know what he did. We do not know how many police officers fired, who fired,” said Griffith in a press conference over a week ago.
Other legal experts stated that based on the recording, there were clear parallels in the footage and what was stated in the police report. However, there was uncertainty whether any of the vehicle’s occupants made a threatening motion before the officers opened fire on them.
If police officers in the Morvant scenario had been wearing the body cameras, experts said, some of them would have been in a position to record such action by the slain men.
On Tuesday, Griffith confirmed he called for the additional cameras to protect his officers from false accusations.
He said, “The reason I want to push for body cameras more than anyone is for when my officers are wrongfully accused by the lady in the towel who makes the accusation because we do know they have bionic eyes that see through walls and around corners.”
Gargamel killed by
Marissa La Borde, the relative of another victim of a police shooting Billy Toussaint, also called for the use of the body cameras in the wake of the three men’s deaths on June 30. Toussaint, also known as “Buju” or “Gargamel”, was killed by police on June 11.
“The incident from Morvant, it just brings back memories of the 11th and that was just heartbreaking for me,” said La Borde, who explained her stance concerning body cameras as she made reference to inconsistencies she saw in the police account of her uncle’s death.
“Yes, because you see now, if the police wearing their body cameras, actually the commissioner reference it, the authority could know well this person was an innocent man and they cannot plant anything on anybody who is innocent,” she said.
“I not vex with the police if they find somebody who wanted and yet they was greeted by gunfire whatever and they get what they get, I wouldn’t be vex for that.
“But innocent people who don’t know anything about that life?”
La Borde said the relatives of the Morvant victims have reached out to her to do a joint march against police killings.
Bodycams hold police,
While most have appealed for the use of the body cameras as a means to protect the public from police misdeeds, retired New York Police Department Sargeant Chris Traumer confirmed it could also serve to protect the officers from accusations if they are switched on.
“You should have it on just in case someone says anything, any type of allegation. It protects you also. It holds both sides accountable because people know that once that camera on they are less likely to make allegations,” he said.
He added, however, that witnesses become more reluctant to speak to officers with the camera in operation.
“You’re supposed to turn it on once you respond to a job. Sometimes they don’t turn it on, but it supposed to be, especially in a heavy job like a robbery or burglary,” said Traumer, who explained that officers would often have to account for their decision to switch off the camera prior to engaging the public.
“I know there are repercussions for the guys that shut it off, they hold them accountable, like hey, why did you shut it off? Especially when both (officers) shut it off. Or three or four,” said Traumer, who admitted that he himself was not given the opportunity to wear the camera during his time in the NYPD.
Criminologist Daurius Figueira, meanwhile, has expressed concern about the use of the camera.
“The fact of the matter is, you have instances where the cam is switched off. So what actually transpired becomes the word of the police officer versus the word of the arrested person or the victim in an encounter with the police. So that is the main problem that has been encountered with it in the United States, where the officer can be wearing the cam but it is in fact switched off or it was inoperative at the time,” said Figuera.