Peril Amid The Peace
Two cops murdered in less than a year on August Town killing fields
Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
The gritty St Andrew community of August Town has seen a significant reduction in murders since warring gangsters signed a peace treaty in 2008, but danger still lurks everywhere in the university town established in the shadows of picturesque hills.
Those tasked with policing this valley say danger hides in every leaf of every tree, along the gully banks, behind the zinc fences, on rooftops, on the flats, and in the hills - especially in the hills.
The police, who are sworn to serve and protect, are not spared by the vile fingers pulling the triggers of illegal guns in this troubled town with a history linked to religion, the intelligentsia, and violent crime.
When the guns are not pointed at each other, they are pointed at innocent residents, visitors to the area, and the on-duty men and women in the area sworn to serve, protect and reassure in the name of the law.
Last week, the blood of 35-year-old Constable James Grant ran slowly, coldly down the hills, his brains mixed with the mud slithering into the river from the heavy downpour. He was the first policeman to be killed in the line of duty in Jamaica since the start of this year, and August Town was, once again, the place a cop met death.
Just nine months earlier, District Constable Paul White was also killed in August Town after he and his colleagues attempted to apprehend a wanted man.
CHALLENGING TO POLICE
For head of the Area Four Police, Assistant Commissioner George Quallo, the layout of August Town makes it, and other similar communities, almost impossible to police.
"We have so many challenges policing this area and other similar areas in inner-city communities. August Town has heavily bushed hillsides and the general terrain is bad," Quallo told The Sunday Gleaner.
"But this (killing of Grant) is such an all-round tragedy because August Town is the quietest it has been in several years," added Quallo.
Addressing suggestions that the police may have entered the area undermanned this time around, Quallo said the decision was made following a risk assessment.
"Had they gone in there and recovered guns, and arrested the criminals, we would have lauded them. But hindsight is always 20/20. Intelligence would have pointed them in a particular direction and they did the risk assessment. From that, they believed they had adequate resources to treat with the situation. But you will always have this after the fact," said the veteran cop.
According to Quallo, despite the loss of the policeman's life, he does not believe in a net-fishing approach, "but an intelligence-driven surgical operation".
He said: "We don't want one community member to be aggrieved unlawfully."
Member of Parliament (MP) André Hylton said politics has long ceased to influence crime and violence in August Town. He said it appears that criminal gangs have joined forces to attack the police.
"The area is very difficult to police. Where the murder took place is where two hills - two mountains - meet and the Hope River flows between the two mountains and then goes to Harbour View. So it occurred right in the neck of the 'V'," said Hylton.
SEVERAL ESCAPE ROUTES
"The criminals have the options of going to Dallas, Bull Bay, Harbour View and Rockfort. It's the perfect getaway. Police can't police it. It is extremely difficult to do because the criminals can be anywhere in the hills and see the police coming down into August Town. It's very, very difficult. The criminals have the advantage," added Hylton, who has been credited for assisting with significant social programmes in the area.
The MP praised the "good elements" in the community and said despite their loss, the police have been very professional, and there have been no complaints from residents of any abuse.
Former deputy police commissioner Mark Shields was among those who welcomed the 2008 peace treaty by the August Town gangsters, even as he warned that there would be no amnesty for criminals and those wanted for crimes.
Since then, Shields has always had a soft spot for August Town, which he said always "welcomed" him.
According to Shields, the latest cop killing has left him saddened for the community and the family of the slain policeman.
"August Town is an extremely dangerous and difficult place to police. There is a backdrop of an extremely rough and rugged area in the hills, with the undergrowth and trees. Those men (criminals) know the area like the back of their hands," Shields told The Sunday Gleaner late last week.
"Any policing operations - and they were normally joint police and military operations - in that area took careful planning. If we received information that there were gunmen in the area, it was not a question of half a dozen police officers going in. It was a carefully planned operation in order that we could surround the areas," said Shields.
The Peace Management Initiative (PMI), which has worked tirelessly in August Town for years, also expressed sadness at the killing of Constable Grant. PMI official Horace Levy said the entity was "truly pained by the killing".
Calling it a "saddening event", Levy said the 2008 peace agreement had significantly improved community relations. However, he admitted that the cops still face grave challenges in policing the small geographical minefield.
"It's very difficult to police because you have a steeply graded and heavily wooded hillside that runs behind the whole length of August Town," said Levy.
August Town is unofficially divided into about six communities, and Levy has traversed all of them in the search for peace over the years. But with several pathways, dirt tracks, zinc fences, and other means of escape for the criminals, he knows that policing the area to ensure that peace reins will be difficult for a long, long time.