Justifying Circumstances

May 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v4-5-My VoiceA day after the West End community fundraiser event raised $3,000 for a West End police station, Jimmy Miller, 67, retired seamen whom in the 1980s owned one of West End’s first backpacker hotels, was shot dead in a confrontation with five tourist officers in front of his home.

After the incident, on three different occasions islanders asked me: “How long do I have before I am killed?” I didn’t and still don’t have an answer to this question. In the past 10 months, there were three homicides by police officers: Jimmy Miller and Gary Fuertado in West End and Osman Madrid in French Harbour.

While these three Bay Islanders died, no burglar, or drug dealer have been killed in confrontation with the police. There is a view that some or all of these violent deaths were justifiable. The question for some still remains: “Could these deaths have been avoided?”

Many islanders find themselves living in a constantly changing reality. The development and growth of their communities and the influx of outsiders have left them perplexed and many have difficulty adjusting to this new reality. Add to that a mixture of prevalent mental health issues, depression, alcohol and drugs, and availability of guns making any small problem potentially lethal. Keep in mind that it is the police and local law enforcement’s responsibility to handle these situations case by case and not shoot at just anyone who runs a road block, refuses to have his yard cleaned, or won’t leave a bar.

For decades, the Honduras’ central government has failed its obligation to attract and recruit a national police from throughout the entire country. Even though Bay Islanders form one percent of the total Honduran population, not a single Bay Islander is a part of the country’s 10,000 strong national police force. Proportionally, there should be 120 police officers that are Bay Islanders, which is 90% of the national police already here.

Roatan introduced tourist police as an opportunity to improve the crime problem and the Bay Islands do need reliable police. When the arrival of tourist police to Roatan was hailed, I thought they would be wearing Bermuda pants, be armed with pepper spray, and be explaining to tourists why they can’t find a public toilet in West End. Roatanians have received more than they bargained for: 9mm wielding, non-English speaking, tuk-tuk riding 20-somethings.

The lower ranked police officers don’t speak English and they don’t even take English classes. They don’t understand and have no respect for local customs, traditions and ways. At the same time, Bay Islanders often feel contempt for the mainland youth placed here in positions of authority. On Roatan and Utila, there is an escalating tension between the local population, foreigners, and police.

A vast majority of these junior police officers are young, underpaid, have to live in crowded, primitive conditions, and can be transferred at any moment. Many police officers don’t understand the island culture, and many feel at odds, even threatened, by different customs, language and skin color that they encounter here. Too often unfortunately the police itself are instigators of the tensions in the community. You can’t teach multiculturalism and sensibility to someone with six years of school who has spent their entire life in another part of Honduras. This is a process that, if set in motion, will take decades even generations to complete. Education, salary reform, hiring goals and construction of facilities for the national police are all long term goals.

There are some basic steps that can be taken to alleviate the tension and distance the reality of another unnecessary tragedy. What is needed now is a fast solution that would save lives. Instead of the Roatan municipal police focusing all its attention in one place, being Coxen Hole, there should be one police officer dispatched for two shifts a day in West End, another one in French Harbour, and one in Los Fuertes. Municipal police should do routine foot patrols, carry radios, and with their knowledge of the community, act as liaisons and mediators in conflicts whenever national police have to intervene. No law abiding Bay Islander should die from a police bullet. [/private]

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