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Cops in the Caribbean – Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Law and Order in the Caribbean reads like a tropical version of Catch 22.

In most western nations, the crooked policeman is invariably the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, however, during the many years for which I have lived in the Eastern Caribbean islands, it is with a growing sense of resignation that I have learned that the corruptible policeman falls generally into the category of ‘rule’ rather than ‘exception’.

The commissioner of police for much of the time that I lived in one island was a local fellow called Mr P. He was the first native to hold the post, his predecessors having been either British, until the island’s independence, or from one of the other islands, in keeping with the sensible policy of appointing non-local Commissioners. In a small country of 150,000 people, where half of the population might be related to one another, the problems of familiarity can be considerable. Nevertheless, it was eventually decided to break with tradition with the elevation of Mr P to the post of Commissioner.

Mr P was a tall, dark, bespectacled man with a thick black moustache and of military bearing. He looked particularly smart in his heavily-medalled, olive-green uniform and his peaked cap with its abundance of gold braid. Like all senior ranks, he carried a silver-topped swagger stick. But in spite of the pomp of his service dress, he struck you as an approachable man, not in the least overbearing and disinclined to abuse his lofty status.

Mr P lived in a residential area that was the haven of ex-patriates and a handful of West Indians whose aversion to paying taxes enabled them to live a good deal more comfortably than their fellow islanders. The very name of the estate was synonymous with money. It was not surprising, therefore, that it was an obvious target for individuals engaged in the unlawful redistribution of wealth and, in the early 80’s, there was a series of break-ins at several of the grand houses on the estate.

Sergeant C, an extremely large and unsavoury police officer who had a penchant for shooting people dead and then questioning them, was keen to resolve the matter in his own inimitable manner. Armed with the tools of his trade, a blunderbuss and half a dozen cold beers, he promised that he would bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice, the latter being his euphemism for the town morgue. Tempered by discretion, Mr P had a better plan – he proposed to station a police vehicle at a nearby village and to initiate regular police patrols throughout the estate. He surmised, not unreasonably, that the presence of a police vehicle would act as a deterrent to would-be burglars.

Some weeks after the arrival of the vehicle at the village police post, the spate of robberies showed no signs of abating. More curious, however, was that neither the Commissioner nor anyone else had at any time observed a police vehicle patrolling the estate. Mr P grabbed his swagger stick and went off to investigate.

On arrival at the village police station, Mr P was not a little surprised to observe the new police vehicle parked outside – gleaming, polished and unused. Enquiring of the duty sergeant why the car was not out on patrol ,he was informed that not a single officer at this particular station was in possession of a valid driver’s licence.

Thereupon, an exasperated Mr P authorised the uncharitable Sergeant C to see what he could do. Within a couple of days, the Sergeant had exacted justice – concealing himself in a bush, he had lain in wait one night and, just as an unsuspecting pedestrian ambled by, he leapt out from his hiding-place, shot the fellow twice in the head, and then demanded to know what his business was.

The unfortunate victim, severely dead and thus unable to respond coherently, was a Rastafarian. Whether or not he had been involved in the robberies was a matter of supreme indifference however. The undeniable facts were that (a) he was a Rastafarian and therefore a scoundrel, (b) he had no business prowling the estate at night-time (note that ordinary people walk but criminals prowl) and © the robberies thereafter ceased (probably because news of this impromptu execution spread rapidly and discouraged the real perpetrators from returning).

There were sighs of relief amongst the ex-patriates. Windows were flung open, doors unbolted and the estate’s residents slept easily once more, quietly congratulating Sergeant on his ‘bag’, for the unspoken sentiment amongst them was that the Sergeant’s victim was guilty, if not on account of some crime, then by virtue of his presence where he should not have been present. The prevailing notion was that if a man was in gaol, then he was certainly guilty, else he would not be in gaol.

Shortly after this incident, Mr P was involved in a car accident. He had been driving up a steep hill on the outskirts of the capital, when his car ‘came into contact with another’. There were no injuries, and as a matter of routine the police requested the driving licences of both drivers. It was an alert journalist who discovered that the Commissioner’s licence was invalid. He was not, of course, charged for this oversight. He was, however, charged a few months later when, aggrieved at the attentions paid by a young man to his wife and daughter on the beach one day, he withdrew his service revolver and shot the fellow dead. For this, he received three years in gaol, on charges of manslaughter, which confirmed to me the truth of a piece of graffiti I had once come across on a lavatory wall in south London – Woman’s laughter is worse than Manslaughter.

Traffic accidents on the island were dealt with in what can only be described as a bizarre and haphazard manner. Considering the regularity with which vehicles ‘came into contact with one another’, ‘left the road’, plunged mysteriously into ravines, or somersaulted into the ocean, it was astonishing to note how very few of the drivers ever found themselves in court.

There existed an island-wide speed limit of 30 mph, reduced to 10 mph in the capital. In order to enforce these limits, the American Government kindly donated some very expensive radar speed trap equipment. The plan was to install this on a mile-long stretch of road at the northern end of the island, and also on another straight stretch of road that ran past the town garbage dump, which has since been converted into a 5-star Canadian hotel.

Only once in 9 years did I ever see this technology in operation. One day, whilst driving at 50 mph along the mile-long stretch of road at the northern end of the island, I noticed a group of policemen at the roadside, about half a mile ahead. One officer was leaning out over the road, holding out something that looked like a dildo. As I sped past, I pressed my horn – a popular Caribbean way of saying ‘Good Morning’. The policeman leaped back into the bushes and I continued my journey.

After several hours of falling into the bushes, the dildo-brandishing policeman and his colleagues decided that they had had more than they could take and promptly shut down the speed trap, leaving the equipment to slowly rot over the ensuing years as the only man trained to maintain it had resigned as a policeman and become a bus driver. This man clearly knew what he was about.

On one occasion, I was unfortunate enough to come into contact with the chairman of the Port Authority, one Mr G. I had rounded a bend from one direction and Mr G had rounded a bend from the other direction. On his side of the road was a large pot-hole and in order to avoid this, he had evidently swung out into the middle of the road and thus our vehicles had momentarily kissed.

We stopped our vehicles and summoned the police who duly arrived under the command of an exceedingly corpulent Inspector who greeted Mr G with a sycophantic smile, and ignored me. Mr G was a very important person and regrettably I was not.

The Inspector asked Mr G to place his car exactly where it had been at the moment of contact. He stationed it close in to the kerb, immediately in front of the pot-hole. The police took various measurements and, as I started to move my own car to the site of the impact, the rotund Inspector waved his hand and told me that nothing more would be necessary as it was patent that the accident had been my fault. He patted Mr G on the back, shook his hand, charged me with reckless driving and strode off. The summons eventually arrived and despite my protests, I was fined forty dollars.

One Friday, a friend of mine, making his way home late at night, came across the victim of a stabbing, lying by the road-side, dying. My friend hammered on the door of a nearby house, but the inhabitant, a priest, told him to go away and stop making such a noise. My friend ran two hundred yards up the road to the police station. There, breathless and in a state of anxiety, he told the duty officer that a man lay dying in the street. The officer replied casually that there were no officers available. Exasperated, my friend began to shout to the officer to call an ambulance and leave the station to assist the wounded man. Seemingly terrified by the force of my friend’s demands, and claiming, later, that he had been horossed by a dronk, the duty officer ran to a back room and locked himself in. The victim of the stabbing died in the street.

On yet another occasion, an outpatient from the local lunatic asylum was reported to have stopped taking his medication and, in a confused state, had barricaded himself inside his house. The infamous Sergeant C was dispatched to the man’s home with instructions to persuade the man to accompany him to the hospital. Persuade him he did for, on arrival, the good Sergeant and his colleagues opened fire, peppered the house with bullets and killed the occupant – who then accompanied the officers to the hospital, though in a wooden box.

“His methods may seem severe,” said some people, “but by golly he gets the job done!”

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.