Police officers physically assaulted people outside the House of Assembly and discharged a form or pepper spray in what could be a breach of protocol on Friday.
The incapacitant spray known as “Captor” was issued to officers of the Bermuda Police Service in 2005 for use “only on those occasions when there is an immediate and serious risk to the safety of a Police Officer or a member of the public” according to then police commissioner Jonathan Smith.
Some of those treated with a liberal dose of Captor at close range were unarmed senior citizens.
Hundreds of people heeded a call by activist group the People’s Campaign and Opposition leader David Burt to express their concerns about government’s proposed deal for a new airport.
The crowds prevented members of Parliament from entering the house grounds to debate enabling legislation for the project.
House Speaker Randolph Horton indicated to the governing One Bermuda Alliance and the opposition Progressive Labour Party that he would convene parliament at 1 p.m.
A senior police officer flanked by about a dozen officers then warned the protesters that blocking access to a public building was an offense. The crowd’s response was to drown out the warning by breaking out in a protest song. Police in riot gear then attempted unsuccessfully to secure the entrances,
Police Commissioner Michael DeSilva issued a statement saying that police use of the incapacitant spray, known as pepper spray, was in response to the protesters “immediately” surging after being warned and that some officers had been assaulted.
But we saw no such surge at the Reid Street entrance when officers sprayed indiscriminately at the protesters. Police in riot gear initially attempted to force their way through the crowd at the main entrance before turning their attention to the Reid Street entrance. There we saw two officers from within the House of Assembly grounds spraying people at very close range. One of them used two canisters at the same time.
We also saw one protester being physically assaulted by officers while protesters reported an elderly woman being thrown to the ground.
Several of those sprayed with Captor were elderly Bermudians. One was taken to hospital by ambulance.
“They treated us like animals”, said Marie Smith. “It (pepper spray) went down my throat.” And some reported that a police officer had also used a taser.
The incapacitant spray known as Captor was issued to Bermuda police officers in 2005 and described as “officer safety equipment”.
The officers safety equipment is to be used only on those occasions when there is an immediate and serious risk to the safety of a Police Officer or a member of the public.
said then Police Commissioner Jonathan Smith in a statement.
The immediate threats to officer and public safety by machete or knife wielding offenders, other bladed weapons and implements which can cause severe injury or death can now be more effectively countered and controlled. I expect arrests to be possible under more controlled conditions. Officers will perform better knowing that they are better protected; the public will be more confident in our ability to deal with the contemporary policing problems we face. The high risks of serious assaults on Police will be reduced.
No arrests were made at the Reid Street entrance after the use of the spray.
Captor spray is also used by law enforcement agencies in the UK and the United States where it is considered a non lethal form of force that temporarily incapacitates with a searing burning pain in the eyes, nose and mouth. People with pre-existing conditions such as cardiac problems and asthma may, however, experience complications.
Originally deployed to subdue violent suspects, pepper spray has been used on peaceful protesters in other jurisdictions. But such use has been controversial and in some cases challenged successfully in court (http://www.nopepperspray.org/). Two studies in the Netherlands found that peaceful gatherings often turn violent because of the use of pepper spray.
Some members of the Bermuda Police Service were horrified at the behavior of some of their colleagues but would not express their views publicly. One officer was heard to say that her colleagues seemed to have no regard for children at the protest and she had to enter the crowd to retrieve her young son.
The crowds had been peaceful and calm in the early hours of the protest but the police tactic left many angry and restive.
And the police failed to control the situation and secure access to parliament – despite their use of pepper spray.
There was one report of a police officer being assaulted with an umbrella.
Images of our seniors and members of our public being pepper-sprayed is not something we should see in Bermuda,” Premier Michael Dunkley said in a video statement.
The pepper spraying of senior citizens and others who have assembled in peaceful protest has no place in Bermuda. The images and videos from today cast a stain on our society that will not easily be removed,” said David Burt in a statement.
Burt added that his party had expressed its concerns to the acting governor and was calling for an investigation.
Acting Governor Ginny Ferson, and Police Commissioner Michael DeSilva took a harder line in their official statements. Both stressed that the protesters had broken the law by preventing MPs from accessing the house of assembly.
Our investigators are reviewing video footage that was captured today to identify offenders with a view to preparing files for the DPPs review. We have received one complaint from a member of the public against a police officer, and that matter will also be investigated,” DeSilva said.
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