KINGSTON –– The fatal shooting of a 23-year-old man who Thursday snatched an M16 rifle from a policeman outside the Olympic Gardens Police Station in St Andrew has sparked criticism from one mental health specialist who believes the situation could have been handled differently.
Professor Frederick Hickling, psychiatrist in the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies, said Odane Bennett might still be alive had the police contacted the nearest mental health team, which could have talked Bennett into returning the stolen weapon to the cops without incident.
“This sort of incident is very unusual; it is very rare. You have mentally ill persons who get sick, but the rate of them committing violent crimes is very low. It is often blown out of proportion by people who have this fantasy that mentally ill people are dangerous,” said Hickling, revealing that there are some 55,000 registered mentally ill persons living in Jamaica and that only a small fraction of them are violent.
“But I can’t blame the police. They are not trained to deal with mental illness. They are trained to deal with criminal and violent persons. So the minute they see a person behaving in a violent manner, the knee-jerk reaction is to respond to him as a criminal,” he said.
Hickling said trained mental health teams are assigned to general hospitals and clinics across the island but that many persons are not aware of such teams. He questioned why the police did not summon one of the teams to the scene.
Official police reports are that about 6 a.m., Bennett, whose relatives said he was of unsound mind, snatched the weapon from the constable as he sat in a police vehicle outside the Olympic Gardens station.
Bennett then ran across the road and boarded a minibus loaded with passengers. The cops immediately pounced on the vehicle and demanded that Bennett turn over the weapon. Instead, he reportedly pointed it at them, and the policemen said they were forced to take evasive action, firing several shots, killing him.
Four investigators from the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) combed the death scene for clues Thursday, as a section of Olympic Way remained cordoned off to vehicular traffic until noon.
Metres from the death scene, the solemnness of the abandoned minibus and the numbered markers signaling where shell casings had fallen amplified the grief of Bennett’s relatives, who sobbed uncontrollably as they detailed his month-long battle with mental illness to a female INDECOM investigator.
They, and the dozens of onlookers who gathered at nearby corners, questioned whether the police could have resolved the incident without shooting Bennett to death.
“They never had to shoot him because the same police dem that shoot him know that him sick. Anytime him sick, is right over there, over at the police station, him always go for help,” mourned Latasha Gordon, Bennett’s sister.
“The second day him sick, is over the police station we go for him. So they know him, and they know that him sick. That’s why dem shouldn’t kill him,” she cried.
Gordon said Bennett fell ill on March 29 after complaining about being hit on the head by an unseen force while sweeping his yard on nearby Hill Avenue.
She said Bennett started acting stranger and stranger in the days following that incident and that he was taken to the Kingston Public Hospital and the University Hospital of the West Indies, where he received treatment.
Doctors recommended that he be taken to the Bellevue Hospital, but his family, convinced that he was possessed by demons, opted instead to take him to a church, where they said he would have spent seven days fighting off the ‘spirits’. On the sixth day, and the day after his baptism, he met his demise.
Onlookers claimed that the policemen ordered the passengers out of the bus and retrieved the gun before firing at Bennett. However, those claims could not be substantiated by INDECOM.
Assistant Superintendent Andrew Johnson from the St Andrew South Police Division told The Gleaner that the policeman could face sanctions for losing his weapon.
“There is an internal process that will determine whether or not there was any observable breach of administrative processes. The investigation will help us to determine that,” he offered.