Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Fortress KPH and a convo with cops

Published:Sunday | August 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A section of the Kingston Public Hospital.

Martin Henry, Columnist

Murder took me to the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH). The police said to arrive at 8 o'clock. I confidently parked in an unmarked available space in the hospital parking lot when my first security guard politely enquired if I was staff.


No. Visitors must park across the road. In a burnt-out lot captured and roughly cleaned up. Mr Mesh Merino Parking Attendant was busy finishing up a monologue quarrel with someone who wasn't cooperating with his imperial instructions.

Back across the road. The security guard at the big visitors' iron gate into the fortress said the autopsies start "aroun' 9 o'clock". The bodies hadn't arrived yet and the doctors were not there. "Dem wi call yuh".

So where could we sit to wait for over an hour? Mr Guard answered with exasperated patience and puzzlement over the ignorance of someone who seems not to know how the runnings go. "Some bench up so," he waved. So off we went to the concrete benches near the entrance to the compound, thankfully in the shade of large trees, but 200 yards away and out of earshot from where dem wi call wi.

Hostile fort

The benches were full and people 'kotched' wherever they could, or stood leaning on walls. What the benches did provide was a good vantage point to watch the goings and comings of people having to use the services of the English-speaking Caribbean's largest hospital. And it isn't pretty. The entire frontage of the hospital is built like a hostile fort with only barred entry holes manned by security guards. Everywhere, those contracted guards are the first point of contact, with no professional hospital staff in sight.

As we waited, a fellow sitter told how she had gone to do her blood test close to the end of a working day to avoid the morning crowd, only to have the lab staff tell her to come back tomorrow because they were preparing to close.

A woman walks by with a prescription dangling from her dejected hand. The resident taxi operator/talker/entertainer/assistant calls out to her. What appen? Yuh no get through a di pharmacy? No. She trudges on.

I am not altogether unfamiliar with the KPH, but have never had a spare hour to sit in front of it and watch it at work - from the outside.

Jamaican public facilities generally don't win awards for customer service, except those they award themselves, but the universal problem of quality service has been worsened by the heavy-handed response to its security risks by the KPH. I'm no security expert; but I'm convinced that, with a different approach to customer service, better treatment could be offered without compromising the safety of users and staff.

It is "aroun' 9 o'clock", so we make our way back to the big iron gate. Other people on the same terrible mission have stayed there standing in the sun. But the guards have already started to call out the names of the bodies to be autopsied. Once we are in, the waiting room of the morgue is pleasant enough and the staff accommodating. But half the people have to 'kotch' outside the small room. Why give everybody the same appointment time when only one autopsy can be done at a time? This same out-of-order, disregardful scheduling is practised in government facilities all over the country.

But the minister of state on the same terrible autopsy mission didn't have long to wait. I can't accuse him of pulling rank or strings in my presence, but he was accompanied by the SMO to whom he introduced me. When the minister had departed, a worker was heard to mutter as he loaded an autopsied body into a waiting hearse, "Everything, the minister, the minister."

Our long wait for our turn for only two of us to step into the autopsy room to identify the body allowed me to talk with the police. Three of them were on our case and tied up at KPH for four hours, waiting, waiting, waiting, like the rest of us.

They had come in from country just after 9 o'clock. They were among the officers who had processed the crime scene and I had been very impressed. The detective sergeant, a remarkably gentle youth, had been on duty from 4 o'clock the evening before and was to go back to unfinished business after the autopsy. On the day of the murder, he had similarly been on extended duty far beyond any eight-hour day. He is the investigating officer across several police stations. Murder cases cannot be any better resolved with this kind of staffing and workload in the police force. It is madness to expect more.

In our case, the case was uncomplicated. One brother with a history of violent confrontations and erratic behaviour had stabbed another to death. And there were witnesses.

Quick on the scene

The police, who were quick on the scene, couldn't capture the perpetrator, who was hurling stones at them in difficult mountainous terrain and they didn't attempt to kill him. But the citizens, nimble and familiar, captured him in short order. And handed him over to the police!

Det Sgt leaned over to the brother whom I had accompanied to the morgue for the identification. The arrested man was asking for slippers and underpants. "Ah yuh bredda a'ready. If you bring di tings to di station, mi wi carry dem go gi'im", Det Sgt offered. The holding jail and his home station are miles apart.

Bold Constable, clad in bullet proof vest, recounted how he had to intervene in a family fight which continued even when the police arrived, and how he handcuffed a bleeding combatant.

The superintendent arrived on the scene and ordered that the handcuffs be removed since, obviously, a bleeding man must be victim rather than perpetrator, in his estimation. The released man promptly attacked the superintendent, who ordered the handcuffs back on. Bold Constable said he allowed couple licks well to be delivered before he complied.

At the station, an ACP present again ordered release from the cuffs without investigating. And much to Bold Constable's delight, the violent man charged again and was ordered recuffed. Compliance was in slow motion.

Mr Police Photographer is mostly silent and is all business as he dons his white protective jumpsuit and picks up his camera for the autopsy room.

Naturally, the Mario Deane beating case came up. And I listened to the other side. These young officers repeated the position of their seniors about the subhuman conditions of the cells.

So what becomes of the reports, I ask? They go up the hierarchy and disappear somewhere in Never Never Land.

So why don't the line officers make a public stink about the situation? They can't be fired for simply stating the facts, I argued. That may be true, but there are other ways to punish an officer who speaks out. And everybody wants to climb the ranks and get off the tough streets.

So media and everybody else say Mario Deane was locked up with madmen. What qualifies the police to determine the mental condition of people they have to arrest? Dem a nuh docta, Bold Constable asserts. We caan pronounce people dead either.

And with the growing interdictions by INDECOM and the costs to interdicted police officers, crime a go increase, Bold Constable declares with the agreement of his overworked, underpaid and underappreciated comrades.

It is 12:45. Our autopsied body has been 'released' and collected by the funeral home. We trudge to the visitors' car park across the road. Det Sgt, on duty since 4 o'clock the evening before, stumbles back to work. I checked. He wouldn't be driving - half asleep. It was a road accident that brought the minister in.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.