NEGRIL, Jamaica— Every day, Richard Hill has to pass the bullet-scarred courtyard outside his home where he saw his 47-year-old brother gunned down at point-blank range by a police officer.
That Thursday more than a year ago, police in a van skidded to a stop where Mickey Hill stood among friends and relatives outside his home on the main street in Negril, a western beach town popular with tourists. He had just returned from the store with a black plastic bag of groceries: canned milk, flour and cornmeal.
One of the policemen, addressing Mickey as “big man,” ordered him to open the bag, Richard Hill said.
“When he brought his hand out, it was boom boom boom! Man, the first of the three shots went straight through the tinned milk he was holding in front of him,” said Richard Hill. Police then threw his brother’s lifeless body into the back of a jeep and drove away, he said.
The Hill case has become a rallying point to end what human rights activists say is a culture of impunity that has allowed police to serve as judge, jury and executioner. Police said they were investigating the presence of gunmen and had indeed recovered a gun, but witnesses insisted there was no gun, nor were there gunmen, in the area. Hill worked as a captain of a sight-seeing boat.
“He was a family man, a working man, but the cops gave him no chance,” said Hill, his eyes tearing.
The family’s supporters have staged small rallies, including a candelight vigil in Negril on the anniversary of his slaying, demanding answers. The human rights group Jamaicans for Justice raised the case in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee.
Hill and the rest of his family are bracing for a delayed round in court to determine whether the accused officer may be held accountable. But in Jamaica, chances are it will be a long, painful wait.
More than 2,000 fatal shootings by security officers were reported by police over the last decade in this Caribbean country of 2.8 million people, but only one officer stands convicted of involvement in a wrongful killing. Police almost always claim that the deaths came as they responded to unprovoked gunfire.
Police statistics show that more accused officers have fled the island than have been convicted of abuse since 1999.
In May 2010, in one of the bloodiest episodes in Jamaica’s recent history, 70 civilians were killed over the course of a few days while security forces hunted drug kingpin Christoper “Dudus” Coke. Officials promised to investigate, but have barely begun.
“After more than a year-and-a-half of waiting, what can you possibly find if you begin an investigation now? Blood samples, gunshot residue, likely fingerprints are lost,” said Yvonne McCalla Sobers, head of the Jamaican rights group Families Against State Terrorism. “That is enshrining impunity.”
Some despair of ever getting answers.
“I have no faith in the integrity of the systems in Jamaica,” said Claudine Clarke, whose father, an accountant, was shot 22 times by security forces in his upscale home outside Kingston during the police and military raids to catch Coke. At the time, authorities said they were operating on intelligence that the powerful gang leader was hiding there.
Most of the killings occur in rough neighborhoods that are seldom seen by the tourists who flock to the scenic island’s beaches. The areas are usually densely populated slums and shantytowns where violence is common.
Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds says the complaints are overblown, noting that Jamaican officers often work in very difficult environments and are threatened by the enormous number of illegal guns on the streets. About 70 percent of last year’s roughly 1,100 murders were committed with illegal guns and about 12 to 14 police officers are killed each year.
Hinds said police are trying to dismantle major gangs and lowered Jamaica’s crime rate last year by 23 percent. Allegations of recurrent police abuses are from “ill-informed people,” he said.
“But we would never say that there are not any problems, and we take no comfort in any allegations of wrongdoing,” said Hinds, who pointed out that the 211 reported police killings last year were 69 fewer than the official tally of 2010.
Critics say they see no changes in what they call a shoot-first mentality among police.
“In the late 1990’s, we were aghast at the police killing figures of 130, 140. Now, amazingly, 211 killings is touted as a sign that we had a good year,” Sobers said.
The roughly year-old Independent Commission of Investigations, set up by the government to investigate police abuses, is struggling to get reforms from security forces and cooperation from an ineffective justice system, where a backlog of unresolved criminal cases stands in excess of 414,000.
The commission says investigations of alleged brutality by agents of the state continue to be “plagued by delay, inertia and a lack of adequate resources.”
The problems have been aggravated by an overworked and under-equipped crime lab that can take months or even years to analyze ballistics evidence.
National Security Minister Peter Bunting, who has been in office for about a month, said he hopes to develop new policies encouraging the use of non-lethal weapons to stem the bloodshed.
It is often tough to even know which officers commit abuses because police in gritty slums sometimes wear masks or kerchiefs over their faces and too many routinely conceal their badge numbers on patrols, said independent commission chief Terrence Williams.
“It is already difficult to identify them with all their gear. When on top of that they wear a mask covering their face, it is impossible to identify them,” Williams said.
Police spokesman Karl Angell said there would be no comment about another agency’s criticism. But at a press conference last year, Angell said officers are only permitted to wear masks in “very, very special circumstances” to protect their identities on sensitive operations, and must have received approval of the high command.
Nevertheless, the use of identity-masking balaclavas or handkerchiefs is actually on the rise, according to Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the Jamaicans For Justice rights group.
At least two of the officers who descended upon Hill’s brother on Nov. 4, 2010, were wearing masks, according to relatives and other witnesses.
Hill and his family are getting frustrated with the slow pace of Jamaican justice, which they believe is meant to chip away at their resolve.
Early last year, Williams’ commission arrested and charged an officer with the slaying, but the public prosecutor’s office withdrew that charge, arguing the panel did not have the power to bring a case before the court. The backlogged prosecutor’s office then filed its own indictment, and the accused Kingston-based officer was released on roughly $6,000 bail. Setting a trial date was delayed last month and it’s not clear when the case might be heard.
“The way they do it here, people always wait for years so the witnesses give up if they don’t get scared first,” Hill said quietly, standing beside a tree where one of the accused policeman’s bullets lodged. “But we’re seeing this through. We’re not letting this go.”