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Police: No order for pepper spray at protest

  • Stephen Corbishley, the Commissioner of Police (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)
  • A protester wipes her eyes after being pepper-sprayed by police outside the House of Assembly (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

No order was given to use pepper spray on protesters outside the House of Assembly during a clash with police in 2016, the island’s senior policeman said last night.

And he denied an accusation that the gold commander at the incident had failed to answer a summons to appear before a parliamentary joint select committee set up to examine the confrontation after a crowd blocked the entrance to the House of Assembly in protest over the public private partnership deal to build a new airport.

Commissioner of Police Stephen Corbishley, who took over as commissioner after the protest, said that a finding by a parliamentary joint select committee that officers were told to use their Captor pepper spray misinterpreted video footage from an officer’s bodycam.

Mr Corbishley added: “The referenced video footage has been mischaracterised as a command and/or an order as distinct from an on-the-spot reaction of one officer to the impending peril that he or she felt alongside the threat fellow officers were facing in the height of the affray that was mounting.

“The fact remains that the use of Captor spray was an independent decision left to each of the officers in question, a decision that was to be reached based upon their individual assessment of the situation that they were facing at any given time.”

He added: “Public-order policing is a complex issue where there will inevitably be lessons learnt. It is essential to note that the officers involved in this operation faced hitherto unprecedented threats of violence and intimidation from protesters.

“Officers made independent decisions to use their Captor spray in light of this threat.

“There is no evidence that a senior command order was made to action this use of force.

“The finding by the PJSC that ‘an order was given to officers to deploy Captor spray’ is a central theme of its report.

“However, the finding is erroneous and there is no evidence to support this.”

Mr Corbishley said it was “factually incorrect” to suggest that the gold commander failed to comply with a summons to appear before the committee.

He added: “The gold commander attended at the required time, date and place specified in the summons, but was prevented from having any representation to assist him and advise him on how to deal with the unspecified questions to be presented to him by the PJSC — questions which may well have necessitated the invoking of immunities and privileges in the public interest and the interests of national security.”

Mr Corbishley said that the PJSC’s approach “conflicted with the due process” that should have been observed.

He added: “The fact is that the PJSC then released the gold commander from his attendance after he complied with the summons to attend.

“Subsequently, the gold commander provided, through myself, written answers to all of the written questions thereafter posed by the PJSC.”

Mr Corbishley highlighted that a report prepared by Assistant Chief Constable Chris Shead on the behalf of the UK’s National Police Co-ordination Centre, which has international recognition for its work in investigations of police conduct, was given to the committee.

And he underlined the operational independence of the island’s police service.

Mr Corbishley said: “The NPoCC review, alongside the investigation by the independent Police Complaints Authority, found no evidence to suggest that there was any third party direction given to the Bermuda Police Service in relation to its operational decisions on how to address and deal with the events of December 2, or indeed otherwise. That is because no such direction was given. The conduct of the BPS operation was internally driven through an independent police command structure and in no way was externally influenced.

“Any suggestion to to the contrary is wholly without merit and is incapable of substantiation.”

He said Mr Shead’s report had contained ten recommendations to improve the Bermuda Police response to public protests and disorder.

Mr Corbishley added: “These recommendations have been addressed and I offered to the PJSC to attend and describe in detail the BPS response to these findings, but this was not taken up.”

He added: The PJSC report also suggests that I, and the BPS, were uncooperative with its inquiry and that I myself interfered with the process.

“I disagree with this suggestion and would highlight the extent of the material that was provided by the BPS, including the former commissioner’s detailed written statement and the attendance of the former deputy commissioner to give oral evidence, together with my own offers to the committee.

Mr Corbishley said the service was preparing “formal correspondence” for Kim Swan, the PJSC’s chairman, on the report.

He added: “I welcome the overall report and its findings.

“It is essential that the BPS learn from this event in ensuring that protests in future are lawfully conducted with consistent engagement with the parties involved and that any use of force is minimised.

“However, it is my position that the officers involved in the events of December 2, 2016 performed their role under extremely difficult circumstances and were professional throughout.”

Kim Swan said last night: “The report has been tabled in the House and Members will have the opportunity to debate it at that time.”