Under the gun in Jamaica
Staff Inspector Dave McLeod of the Toronto Police took on a formidable assignment: sharing critical intelligence with authorities in his native Jamaica, where rampant crime has complex links to violence in Canada’s largest city. TIMOTHY APPLEBY reports
TORONTO; KINGSTON, JAMAICA — TORONTO.
Even after the city’s summer of the gun, the slaying of 18-year-old Amon Beckles in November, 2005, was a shocker. Felled by a bullet through his neck as he stood on the steps of a north-end church, Mr. Beckles had been attending the funeral of his friend, Jamal Hemmings, 17, shot dead just eight days earlier in a parking lot near midtown Eglinton Avenue, a neighbourhood known as Little Jamaica.
Alarms sounded within the Toronto Police Service, too.
"The Beckles shooting was a defining moment for us," recalled Staff Inspector Dave McLeod, who, less than 72 hours later, took the helm of what was dubbed the black intelligence unit. Its focus: the black-on-black shootings that were fuelling the worst wave of gun crimes the city has ever seen.
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That 14-officer task force was part of a police response that cut Toronto’s gun crime by nearly half in 2006. Then came another request from Police Chief Bill Blair: How would Staff Insp. McLeod feel about heading down to his native Jamaica for six months as part of an intelligence-sharing exchange with the Jamaica Constabulary Force?
"There’s a significant movement [of criminals] back and forth between the two countries," Chief Blair said. "There are strong roots and connections — family connections, neighbourhood connections — between some of the gangs operating down there and operating here. And there can be violent acts of retribution."
Staff Insp. McLeod went to Jamaica, where a Globe and Mail reporter conducted a series of exclusive interviews during the officer’s last days on the job in Kingston — the crime-ravaged capital city where pockets are ruled by fearsome gangs whose reach extends clear to the streets of Toronto.
As a light drizzle turns the garbage-strewn laneway to mud, homicide detectives inspect a crime scene that could scarcely offer fewer clues or look more bleak.
There are no yellow tape or eyewitnesses, and the rain has already washed away the blood. Nor is there any sign of a shell casing — perhaps scooped up by the fleeing gunman, as often happens. As for the victim, 23-year-old Tristan (Addo) Miller, he’s unconscious, dying in hospital from a bullet that exited his head and cannot be found.
On this sultry Friday night, the air is thick with menace.
Detective Sergeant Worrell Clacken’s 9 mm pistol is stuffed in his belt as he scribbles notes under a flashlight beam that illuminates the surrounding shacks and corrugated-tin fencing. Two of his colleagues are peering out at the darkness with weapons drawn.
"Often the gunmen will be waiting and start firing at us from behind cover," Det. Sgt. Clacken explained.
Should that happen, the cops will assuredly fire back. Last year, they shot dead an extraordinary 240 people, while losing 13 of their own.
In sum, the slaying of Mr. Miller — a known gunman — will likely end up as an unsolved blip on a crime-washed island that has long produced one of the world’s highest homicide tallies and one of its lowest clearance rates. In 2004, for instance, Jamaica recorded 1,471 homicides and 78 convictions — 45 for murder and 33 for manslaughter, far fewer than the number of murder suspects who themselves ended up in the morgue.
Gathering forensic evidence that can withstand scrutiny is only one of the entrenched challenges facing the island’s beleaguered police.
Drugs — in-transit cocaine headed for North America and a huge marijuana industry — remain staples of the underworld economy. Modern organized crime is a multinational witch’s brew of drugs, guns, money and death, which in Jamaica’s case means a network of foreign-based gangs spread among expatriates in Britain, Canada and the United States.
Meanwhile, heavily armed Jamaican street gangs are still closely affiliated with the two main political parties, both gearing up for the election that must be called this year amid forecasts of widespread violence.
And with police resources stretched to the maximum — two in three police cars are at least 10 years old, almost all rural police stations are still without computers and most of the JCF’s more than 8,000 regular members have never used one — the spectre of police corruption always hovers, barely dented by a slew of low-level prosecutions.