We proffer that Barbados bears little resemblance to Philadelphia. Nor are the racial tensions that exist in Ferguson, Missouri, mirrored on these 166 square miles of ours.
But there are lessons to be learnt from these communities of our giant northern neighbour. And those who have the best interest of this island at heart must do all that is lawfully possible to light a fire under those charged with managing our legal processes, to ensure that institutionalized lethargy does not allow Barbados to slip into the type of judicial morass that often afflicts other jurisdictions.
A report released this week by the United States Justice Department was highly critical of police in Philadelphia, who it said were responsible for shooting at civilians at an average of once per week over the past seven years. The report also noted that since 2007, 59 unarmed civilians had been shot by police.
The report did not state whether they were suspects or innocent victims trying to retrieve stolen property. The document also revealed that there was no national data maintained on police shootings.
The Justice Department also criticized the Philadelphia police authorities for inadequate firearms training and a shooting review process which was too often kept secret. With respect to the police in Ferguson, the Justice Department –– following investigations by federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation –– found widespread unconstitutional police practices and demanded drastic changes.
We shoot across the high seas and arrive in Barbados on March 15 at Dash Gap, Bank Hall, St Michael, where an unarmed Selwyn Knight and his son Junior Knight –– according to documented medical and post-mortem evidence –– are both shot in their backs, and Selwyn perishes. Ten days have passed since that slaying by a police constable and the most definitive statement emanating from the Royal Barbados Police Force has been “investigations are continuing”.
We will not presume to put any timeline on police investigations, but we will be guided by history. Research of homicides committed in Barbados over the past two to three decades has revealed that there is not a solitary instance where the perpetrator of an uncomplicated homicide was known, located in the Barbados jurisdiction, was accessible to the police, and with the attendant ingredients of actus reus and mens rea present, the Royal Barbados Police Force dawdled over a definitive course of action.
As a matter of policy, the Royal Barbados Police Force –– and we stress –– does not refer files to the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a determination on whether to proffer criminal charges, inclusive of murder. Of course, the practice is not unheard of.
There have been instances where criminal matters have been referred to the DPP for guidance; but generally police investigators determine when charges are to be brought. Indeed, charges against individuals reach the law courts in the name of the Commissioner of Police and not the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Additionally, the involvement of a police officer in any alleged offence does not necessitate that the Director of Public Prosecution make the final decision on whether charges should be brought or not. Over the years Barbadian police officers have from time to time been charged with fraud, theft, rape, illegal drug possession and other offences, without their matters being referred to the DPP for guidance. However, in the interest of transparency in such a grave matter one can understand why police authorities would seek to involve the DPP in the process.
But the reality of the situation is that if one human being unlawfully kills another, with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied, with the death occurring within a year and a day of the application of any injury, that constitutes murder. The possession and usage of a police service revolver and/or police designation does not lessen culpability. There are circumstances where deadly force might be required by the police and these are specifically explained in law as well as the rules and regulations guiding police conduct and the use of firearms.
But what were the rights of Selwyn Knight?
Barbados’ Constitution states at Section 12 (1): No person shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence under the Laws Of Barbados of which he has been convicted. Section 12 (2) adds: A person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of this section if he dies as the result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably justifiable –– (a) for the defence of any person from violence or for the defence of property; (b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; (c) for the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny; or (d) in order lawfully to prevent the commission by that person of a criminal offence.
The suggestions, thus far, are that an unarmed Selwyn Knight was at Dash Gap to retrieve stolen property from a burglar. Statements from his son Junior Knight, as well as the guilty plea of the burglar, speak for themselves. Still, a policeman’s bullet ripped through Mr Knight’s back, decimated his pericardium, shattered left and right atrium, demolished left and right ventrical, and rendered him lifeless on that hot Bank Hall pavement.
This is not a case of a corpse being found in a state of advanced decomposition. This is not a case of bones being found and requiring some reconstructive process to arrive at clues and a possible suspect. This is not a case dependent on forensic DNA testing and the collection and matching of fingerprints or other trace evidence. Yet our judicial authorities linger.
Almost two weeks after Mr Knight’s demise, and the shooting of his son, citizens have only been afforded the usual perfunctory line of “police investigations are continuing”. Meanwhile a population waits, a family grieves, Mr Knight decays, and justice in Barbados seemingly lags. This putrid mess is an indictment, not on law enforcement alone; it’s a moment of great Barbadian shame.