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EDITORIAL - Where Armadale meets Munster Road

Published:Monday | March 1, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Most people may not have noticed, but there is a common thread linking the deadly Armadale fire, February's big gun find at Munster Road in east Kingston and last week's recovery of a 9mm Beretta pistol on Sunrise Crescent of Red Hills Road in St Andrew.

The three incidents suggest the collapse of management and control systems at the police armoury and, more generally, over the assets of the constabulary. This is a crisis, given the obvious dangers, that the police chief, Mr Owen Ellington, must fix quickly.

In the report on last May's incident at Armadale, when seven girls perished in the fire, Justice Paul Harrison correctly castigated several officials for the Dickensian conditions in which these wards of the Jamaican state existed in the 21st century.

But Justice Harrison blamed the immediate cause of the fire on the actions of police constable Lawrence Burrell. It was Burrell's hurling a tear-gas ball into a cramped, locked room where the girls slept, Justice Harrison concluded, that ignited the fire.

No records

But Constable Burrell wasn't assigned the tear gas when he and another officer left the Alexandria Police Station for Armadale in response to a disturbance among the girls. He returned for it, having been subjected to taunts and curses.

However, the police have no record of the delivery of that tear-gas canister. Nor is there any information on the circumstances of its dispatch. If those records ever existed, they are now 'lost'.

Tear-gas canisters are categorised as non-lethal weapons and are, perhaps, subject to less rigorous oversight than guns and bullets, which should not, in our opinion, be the case. But it seems just as easy to take, unchecked, high-powered weapons and ammunition from the police's central armoury in Kingston as it is for a constable to obtain, unrecorded, a tear-gas canister from a station in the hills of St Ann.

In the Munster Road incident, the 19 guns and 11,000 bullets seized were stolen from the central armoury and were only discovered, we have been told, because junior cops stumbled on suspicious movements. The theft, apparently, was an inside job.

With regard to the recovered Beretta, it was initially seized from someone who was later convicted for its illegal possession. The gun was supposed to have been in police custody for destruction.

An inventory

Responding to the Munster Road find, Mr Ellington ordered the taking of an inventory of the armoury. For, as the Sunrise Crescent find suggests, far more guns could be missing.

However, the situation demands far more than checking ledgers. A drastic overhaul of the police's accountability arrangements is necessary. Managers must to be held responsible for failures.

It is not enough, and frankly silly, to argue that systems are designed for honest people and can be undermined by the corrupt. For what all these cases point to is a systemic failure of management and oversight. Nobody appears to have been in charge of how guns and other weapons were deployed. If someone was, they allowed the system, at all levels, to become broken on their watch.

Three things are critical: a new system has to be designed, new managers have to be installed and the old ones held to account.

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