As unprecedented probe broadens, growing number of Jamaica police officers face murder charges

The Associated Press

In this photo taken April 17, 2014, in the central Jamaican city of May Pen, Sevina Giderisingh holds a picture of her dead son, Alphanso. The 20-year-old was shot dead by a policeman in a confrontation on the dusty outskirts of this struggling city a few days after graduating from high school. Jamaica’s security forces have long been accused of indiscriminate shootings and unlawful killings. But 27 police officers, including eight in May Pen, now face charges of murder brought by an investigative commission probing abuse allegations against Jamaica’s security forces. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

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By DAVID McFADDEN, Associated Press

MAY PEN, Jamaica (AP) — It's been nearly a year since Sevina Giderisingh's 20-year-old son died in a confrontation with a police officer on the dusty outskirts of this struggling Jamaican city where jobs are scarce and crime is frequent.

The only explanation she's gotten from detectives in gritty May Pen was that an officer shot her eldest son in self-defense one afternoon last June after he was accused of stealing a taxi. But she says a witness told a starkly different story: Her slender son, Alphanso, was unarmed and cold-bloodedly shot while on his knees, begging for his life.

"Even if he got involved in something bad, my son had the right to go to court. This killing was a crime, but where's the punishment?" asked a teary-eyed Giderisingh, clutching her son's high school graduation photo while standing on a dirt road by parched fields where he died.

It's a not uncommon event in Jamaica's poorest neighborhoods, where police and soldiers regularly impose dusk-to-dawn curfews and slum-dwellers say security forces behave as if they are at war. Allegations are rampant of lawmen shooting indiscriminately, planting pistols next to dead bodies and collecting spent shells.

Senior commanders of the Jamaica Constabulary Force have long dismissed accusations of unlawful killings and crime scene manipulation as exaggerated, noting that officers work in dangerous gang-ridden environments where illegal firearms are numerous. The majority of last year's 1,200 homicides were committed with illegal guns and about a dozen officers are killed each year.

But in an unprecedented investigation, 27 police officers across the island are now facing charges of murder brought by a commission created by Parliament in 2010 to probe allegations against security forces. Eight of the officers are based in a single police division that includes Clarendon parish, where May Pen is the capital.

The Independent Commission of Investigations says at least nine other slayings listed by police as unsolved homicides committed by unknown gunmen in Clarendon may actually involve shootings by officers. One case saw a masked assailant fatally shoot a previously wounded suspect lying in a hospital bed.

After receiving information "from a variety of sources" and investigating the cases, "there is a great reason to believe they were indeed police-involved homicides," said Terrence Williams, who heads the commission.

The death of Giderisingh's son is among cases being looked at by the commission, but no determination has been made about what happened and no charges have been filed. Authorities have declined to comment on the killing.

Susan Goffe, director of Jamaicans for Justice, a civic group founded in 1999 to be a watchdog for state abuse, said the allegation of fake reporting "raises the question of whether there are many more persons being killed by police than are being reported."

Since 2000, security forces have reported killing nearly 3,000 people on this island of 2.7 million. Last year, 258 people were slain by law enforcers in the crime-plagued Caribbean country that the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says has the globe's sixth highest homicide rate. In comparison, police fatally shot 13 people last year in Chicago, a U.S. city with the same population as Jamaica.

Almost all of the dead from police shootings have been written off as armed criminals killed in shootouts. A tiny percentage of the cases ever made it to the courts, and only one Jamaican officer has been convicted of an unlawful killing since 2006, according to a 2013 human rights report by the U.S. State Department.

The result is that many Jamaicans say they live in dread of both criminals and police.