Sharon Albarado came away from a recent phone call shedding tears of relief. She'd just been told that the police officer responsible for her husband Leroy's death in 2003 was finally going to be put on trial for manslaughter.
The trial, as well as recent murder charges against seven police officers for the killing of one man and two women, are rare occurrences both in Trinidad and Tobago and across the English-speaking Caribbean, where the number of civilian deaths at the hands of police has been increasing amid skyrocketing crime and public pressure for the police to curb it.
"There is both in the public and among the police the idea that human rights are incompatible with the fight against crime," says Chiara Liguori, an Amnesty International researcher. "On the contrary, the more you show force and brutalize the society, the more crime is likely to go up."
A rise in police killings of civilians
The number of police killings in Amnesty International's annual reports on Trinidad and Tobago has gone from being in the single digits to an average of 40 per year. The police often say the victims were criminals who engaged them in shootouts. But in many cases, witnesses and relatives claim that victims were law-abiding and unarmed, killed by police officers quick to use force. Some argue that was the scenario in July when police officers, now charged with murder, shot and killed a man and two women as they drove not far from their home in rural Trinidad.
It will be a significant event here when Police Constable Kerry Samad goes on trial for the unlawful killing of Leroy Albarado, a retired pipe fitter with no criminal record.
Mrs. Albarado says Mr. Samad climbed over the fence into the Albarados' backyard where they were relaxing late one night with handymen who had been working on the roof of their modest home. Albarado says that Samad ordered everyone not to move and shot Leroy, who was unarmed, when he stood up. Samad claimed he accidentally fired his gun when he tripped and fell. Samad's case comes up for hearing in January.
A guilty verdict would not ease the pain, says Albarado, but it would bring some relief. "You will be a little satisfied that somebody was brought to justice for doing a wrong," she says. But justice has been rare for the more than 200 people shot and killed by on-duty police officers within the past decade in Trinidad and Tobago.
And the phenomenon of questionable police killings is not limited to Trinidad and Tobago. Jamaica has seen the most such killings: 253 in the last year alone, giving the island possibly the highest rate per capita of police killings in the world, according to human rights group Jamaicans for Justice. And international rights organizations are becoming concerned about possible extra-judicial executions in other countries in the seemingly peaceful region. Annual reports have contained warnings on the situation in Guyana, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, and Belize as well.
Obstacles to the courtroom
"There hardly ever is a consequence" to police killings says Attorney Wayne Sturge, who has represented both police officers and victims in police-shooting cases. "The police behave as if they know that either the investigation wouldn't be thorough; it would take a number of years and people would lose interest; or, even if they investigate, it would end up ... adjourned several times, appealed, or thrown out."
The laws of Trinidad and Tobago dictate that each police killing be investigated and subjected to an inquest, a court hearing in which a magistrate – a lower court judge – acts as coroner and determines whether there's enough evidence of wrongdoing to initiate a trial.
But this rarely happens in a way that is speedy and transparent. Only a few cases of police killings have reached inquest, and most of them ended there. Just two cases resulted in convictions, the officers being found guilty of manslaughter. In almost all the cases the resolution came years after the incident happened.
The current system of investigating and adjudicating police killings is riddled with problems. Investigations necessary for the case to move forward are left up to the police themselves. Therefore police, notoriously protective of each other, can dictate the pace of the proceedings and the veracity of much of the evidence.
Cases take a long time to reach and go through inquests, so the coroner courts have become clogged with more cases than they can handle with the current cadre of magistrates.
Israel Khan, an attorney who has defended officers in these cases for two decades, said there are currently more than 51 pending inquests for deaths resulting from police shootings. “It’s too slow and it takes too long,” Khan said of the process. “I’ll be happy if they can expedite them.”
Cases are often scuttled or delayed when witnesses – apathetic, forgetful, or scared – don't show up and magistrates – like many members of the public – are inclined to believe that the police wouldn't shoot innocent people, says Mr. Sturge.
He calls for a reform of how inquests are conducted, removing them from the jurisdiction of magistrates and having them adjudicated by a panel instead of a single person. He believes that if more of these cases reach trial, more officers will be convicted.
The government has made moves to better hold police accountable by giving new powers to the civilian Police Complaints Authority and hiring new staff and a new police commissioner. But so far it does not seem to be having an impact on the number of accusations of unjustified killings by the police or on the pace of investigations.
"You're not going to see a lot of changes in the police until you see change in the approach of government towards crime," said Prof. Richard Bennett, a criminal justice expert at American University in Washington, D.C. “And I think in Trinidad and Tobago you’re in that kind of netherland where government has not yet made a strong commitment.”
Indeed, in response to a recent spate of murders, the government declared a state of emergency, boosting the ability of police officers and soldiers to act without restraint. Already there have been a slew of complaints about the abuse of these powers.
Albarado, meanwhile, continues to hope for justice. She had the opportunity to start a new life in the US, but the conclusion of her husband’s case has kept her here. She may only have a sliver of hope for a satisfactory resolution, but she sympathizes with the families who don’t even have that.
“You think that easy to live with?” she said. “That ain’t easy to live with.”