Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Costly cops! Taxpayers pay millions for police excesses

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Attorney-at-law Bert Samuels
Matondo Mukulu, acting public defender.
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Tyrone Thompson, Staff Reporter

The Government might have to shell out millions of dollars to settle claims for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and wrongful death filed against the police force.

Information garnered by The Sunday Gleaner through the Access to Information Act shows that there are currently 73 cases pending against the State because of alleged abuse of power by members of the force.

These include 71 cases of wrongful arrest and false imprisonment and two cases of wrongful death. Included is the March 2012 fatal shooting of 16-year-old Vanessa Kirkland in Norman Lane, Kingston 13.

Three cops have been charged in connection with Vanessa's killing, but the family has filed a civil suit against the State.

Attorney-at-law Bert Samuels, who is representing Vanessa's family, told The Sunday Gleaner that he is also representing several persons who have filed civil claims against the State for wrongful arrest.

According to Samuels, the judgment from the courts in these cases could cost taxpayers as much as $10 million each.

"We have represented persons who have been detained for four, five months, who have been awarded $3 million to $4 million for false imprisonment.

"For malicious prosecution, we have received, on average, $500,000, and then there is another claim called exemplary or aggravated damages. That's where the conduct of the police is so bad that the court places additional damages to punish the police," said Samuels.

"There are also constitutional claims that are made against the State. You must also bear in mind that legal costs are also borne by the State and this can be over $1 million as well, so it is quite conceivable that awards for a single case could total more than $10 million," added Samuels.

He argued that the majority of claims of false imprisonment were filed in the courts because members of the security forces failed to do adequate investigation before detaining and depriving Jamaicans of their freedom.

"There is a culture in the police force of detaining and then investigating, and sometimes that investigation leads to nothing. There was no reason to detain in the first place, so they essentially put the cart before the horse," charged Samuels.

He argued that some cases of false imprisonment stemmed from a general misunderstanding of the reasons for detention by the police.

"There are other times when the police make an arrest in a matter that was of a civil nature only, and no criminal offence took place. For example, I owe you some money, you go to the police, and the police arrest me, when it was a civil commercial arrangement between you and me and there was no criminal offence committed."

With the State paying a heavy price for these police abuses, Samuels is frustrated that there seems to be no action from the Police High Command against cops involved in cases of abuse.

"First, it's the taxpayers who pay, not the police," said Samuels.

"In our experience, we have seen police who have created these civil liabilities on the taxpayers … promoted by the time we get judgment, so there is no repercussion. I guess the State is saying that people being wrongfully arrested and deprived of their freedom is a natural consequence of policing."

Meanwhile, acting Public Defender Matondo Mukulu accepts that sometimes mistakes may be made in the process of a police investigation; however, he is wary of the flagrant abuse Jamaicans suffer at the hands of the cops.

"There will always be those instances where errors are made by any police service. Those we can tolerate, and constant training will help to reduce such instances. However, what should never be tolerated … is the flagrant breach of a person's right to liberty," declared Mukulu.

He told The Sunday Gleaner that the number of cases of wrongful arrest currently before his office for investigation is of tremendous concern.

According to Mukulu, the cost of these abuses is unbearable to the taxpayers, and worse, it appears the Police High Command is unwilling to sanction the cops involved.

"The costs to the State is unbearable, not only in times of a tight economic squeeze, but at any time, as these are resources that could be better spent on delivering better-quality public services to enhance the citizenship experience in our country.

"The solution, at this stage, we are suggesting, is to encourage senior officers to be more robust in the application of disciplinary sanctions, where there is clear evidence that there has been a breach by the relevant JCF (Jamaica Constabulary Force) member. One practical course is to demote those who have violated human rights. This has the effect of hurting both pride and bank account," added Mukulu.

However, Deputy Commissioner of Police Delworth Heath, who is in charge of the Inspectorate Branch of the JCF, has dismissed the claim that the High Command takes no action against cops who have been found to breach the rights of Jamaicans.

"In the last two and a half years, the record will show the number of officers who have been dismissed or have had their enlistment shortened due to complaints against them," Heath said, as he argued that the High Command has been vigilant in addressing proven cases of police abuse.

"Once the court makes a ruling, the notes of evidence are reviewed and the relevant officers are either referred to internal disciplinary avenues such as the Orderly Room for minor offences or to the Court of Inquiry, where they could face a range of fines or could be ultimately dismissed," said Heath.