Grenada is known for its abundant nutmeg, beautiful beaches, low crime rate and lack of an army. But a Toronto carpenter allegedly beaten to death by police has the island nation abuzz with calls for greater civilian oversight of the country’s only armed force.
Oscar Bartholomew, who grew up in Grenada before moving to Canada roughly a decade ago, was on holiday visiting family. He was detained at a police station near his home village in St. David’s parish on Boxing Day. Authorities said he assaulted a uniformed officer; his family said the woman was in plainclothes and Mr. Bartholomew, mistaking her for an old friend, ran up behind and gave her a hug.
Police hauled the 39-year-old into the station. He was later taken to hospital with head injuries, dying the next day.
On Thursday, his family demanded an independent investigator be brought in, the government turned them down and the Royal Grenada Police Force said it was making swift progress with its probe into the death.
“I want to assure the nation that this is an isolated event and does not in any way reflect the wider RGPF,” said Commissioner Wilan Thompson. “Everything is being done to quickly complete the investigation and I will be intimately involved in the entire process until its completion.”
He said two junior officers had been detained and several more, including the head of the St. David’s police station, reassigned. All officers involved have been interviewed and have also submitted written reports, he said.
Under Grenadian law, a person may be detained for two days before a decision must be made on whether to lay charges.
Mr. Bartholomew’s family said police must go a step further and allow an official from a different jurisdiction to oversee the case. In a country as small as Grenada, with a population of a little over 100,000 and one police force, it would be hard to find someone who does not have some connection to the case, their lawyer said.
“You can’t have the cat watching the cheese,” Derick Sylvester said. “The investigation in this case must be clear, it must be fair, it must be unbiased and it cannot be tainted by dirty hands.”
Mr. Sylvester said the postmortem on Mr. Bartholomew showed he had suffered major injuries to the head, including numerous skull fractures, a hemorrhage and pressure inside his brain.
The lawyer pointed to previous cases of alleged police brutality, including a mentally ill man who was shot dead and a peaceful protest that was met with riot officers. In such instances, he said, authorities promised probes but nothing ever came of them. He said the force was also not properly screening new recruits.
The office of Prime Minister Tillman Thomas, however, said it is satisfied that the RGPF is capable of investigating itself. The director of public prosecutions, an independent official, will have the final say on whether charges are laid, which is enough to ensure the process is unbiased, Mr. Thomas’s spokesman said.
Some members of the public disagreed, telling radio call-in shows and local blogs about their run-ins with police.
In a back-and-forth with reporters at an afternoon news conference, Commissioner Thompson defended the force. He said in recent months it has suspended two of its own officers over misconduct allegations.
His damage-control efforts were likely not aided by an unfortunately worded recruitment advertisement posted on the RGPF website.
“Join the winning team,” it reads. “No questions asked.”