Friday morning’s fatal shooting of a suspected criminal by police is, thankfully, a rare if not unprecedented occurrence in the Cayman Islands.
Quite frankly, it is difficult for us to say with absolute certainty whether it is the first fatal shooting in the 100-plus-year history of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, or the second … or the third or the 10th.
We often encounter this conundrum when we are writing stories about an individual’s accomplishments or historical events, whether it’s about which family settled first in an area, who may have introduced an invention or idea to the country, or who was the first here to pursue a particular sort of profession. As a result, an aphorism uttered in the Compass newsroom (only half-seriously) is, “Never say anything was ‘first.’”
The point is that Cayman’s “modern history” – which we define loosely as the time period since the existence of a relatively accurate, complete and accessible written record of the goings-on in these islands … basically since the inaugural issue of our predecessor The Caymanian (Weekly) was published on Oct. 6, 1965 – is rather short.
Yes, the arc of human affairs in Cayman stretches back more than 500 years, but information about the first 450 years is largely based on oral, intermittent or potentially unreliable accounts.
In regard to Friday’s shooting death of 34-year-old Norval Barrett, a Jamaican national who had returned to Cayman illegally after being convicted of robbery here six years ago, we know that it is the first fatal shooting of a suspect by RCIPS officers since at least the 1980s, according to Deputy Commissioner Anthony Ennis.
We have heard stories of local police shooting and killing a person in the mid-1960s, and perhaps before in the early 20th century. We have not been able to locate written records of those occurrences.
The specific historical significance of Friday’s shooting is not as important as the indisputable fact that such police shootings are exceedingly rare in Cayman, even amid the perceived rise in gun crimes in the community.
Time and again, our officers have demonstrated incredible restraint from using their firearms, even in cases where they would be justified in declaring they felt their lives were in danger. For example, in April 2016, a man pointed what appeared to be a handgun (it later turned out to be an imitation firearm) at police officers, including one who was armed. Instead of firing at the suspect, police allowed him to flee. Later, the man was arrested and eventually sentenced to six years in prison.
In June, a man (who had a flare gun painted black to look like a real firearm) resisted arrest by two armed officers. Instead of shooting the suspect, the officers deployed a Taser in order to subdue him and bring him into custody.
In both of those incidents, the nearby presence of crowds of bystanders (and onlookers) no doubt played a role in the officers’ decision-making.
Although we do not currently know all the details of Friday’s shooting, the RCIPS’s track record over the decades argues strongly for them to be allowed the benefit of any doubt. For the sake of propriety and professionalism, police officers from Bermuda have arrived in Cayman to conduct an independent investigation of the shooting death.
Make no mistake: Police officers carry guns to protect themselves and the community when the use of “deadly force” is warranted. And deadly force is just that.
Let us hope that fatal shootings by police continue to be generational events in Cayman, or rarer – and that if and when they do occur, that we can continue to trust our officers’ were justified.