Within 30 minutes of the shooting to death of teenager Ashmini Harriram, police knew the colour of the car the killer had escaped in, but according to former police commissioner Winston Felix setting up roadblocks with a view to intercepting it would have been pointless if they did not have the licence plate number and details of the suspect.
Based on what this newspaper was told, all the police had to work with was the colour of the car. There were reports that the licence plate on the vehicle was covered and no one at that point had any details about what the shooter looked like. The surveillance camera on a nearby building was unable to pick up anything useful.Observers had raised concerns about the police response following the shooting and had questioned whether roadblocks had been set up. According to residents, ranks spent a lot of time in the area gathering information before they left.
Commander Christopher Griffith told Stabroek News that the initial report was that there had been an accident on the Lusignan Railway Embankment. However, on arrival the police learnt that it was actually a shooting. He said that subsequent to that and having received certain information pertaining to the vehicle said to be involved in the shooting, an all-stations alert was sent out and searches for the vehicle were conducted.
One resident recalled that when she reached the scene about three to five minutes after the shooting, she saw a blue and white police vehicle parked about 10 to 15 feet from the body. The ranks had already drawn a circle around a spent shell that was lying on the roadway. The resident said that from all appearances the rank was heading to the Vigilance Police Station. The resident could not say whether there were other ranks there but remembered this rank because he was dressed in his blue and black police uniform.
The resident recalled being frantic and that she had approached the rank who told her that he had to remain at the scene and could not move but that he had radioed in for back-up. According to the resident persons began to gather and the rank was doing his best to keep them back.
Based on the timeline given, the teen’s mother arrived at the scene about ten minutes after the shooting. The teen was then placed at the back of the police car while her mother and stepfather got into the front seat of the vehicle. The rank then got behind the wheel. Up to this point, the resident said, the police back-up had not arrived. The closest police station is at Vigilance, four villages away.
The woman recalled that things were so hectic that instead of making a U-turn, the police car headed in the direction of Vigilance. She opined that the rank had decided to use the Annandale Market Road to reach the main road from where he would have headed to the city.
She said she was surprised minutes later to see the rank back at the scene and was subsequently told that soon after he drove off, a police vehicle heading to the scene stopped and one of the other ranks took the wheel, while he joined that vehicle and headed back to the scene.
According to the resident, she provided information about the colour of the car that the killer escaped in. According to her, the rank listened and occasionally made jottings in a book he had. She recalled being asked whether the car had been parked on the roadway prior to the shooting to which she responded in the negative.
Shortly after she had given details to the police rank a detailed statement was taken from her at her home.
The resident could not say how many police ranks were at the scene after the first rank left but she knew that several vehicles arrived. She said she spent a while at the scene before returning to her home. She recalled that the police used yellow tape to cordon off the area after the teen had left and spent some time talking to residents and taking statements.
As it relates to the footage from a surveillance camera mounted on a nearby building, Stabroek News was told that it was viewed by detectives but did not yield any clues. This newspaper was told that because of the angle of the camera, the scene of the shooting was out of range. All that the camera recorded was cars driving on the roadway in front of the building. The licence plate numbers of the passing vehicles were not visible in the footage.
An eyewitness had recounted that Harriram and her cousin were heading east along the Lusignan Railway Embankment (in the direction of Vigilance) when a burgundy coloured car passed them and stopped. The car was heading in the same direction.
The eyewitness said it appeared as though the teen was on her cellular phone and as she approached the now stationary vehicle, a man got out of the passenger front seat. “He walk up to she [Harriram) snatch she phone and he go back to de car but he ain’t jump in. He turn back, tek three step, point he gun underneath hay [pointing to below the chin] and shoot.” According to the eyewitness the man then calmly walked back to the vehicle and got in. The vehicle then drove off, but not at a speed, the eyewitness related.
The eyewitness said it was hard to tell if any words were exchanged between Harriram and the assailant.
The teen’s cousin Fiona Samaroo who was with her at the time had recounted that they caught a bus from Georgetown and exited on the Lusignan Public Road. She said that as they neared home, Harriram decided to stop at a shop to buy hair colour to do her clients’ hair because they kept calling her.
She said that a car was parked on the roadway and as they neared “this man come out jus suh with a gun and go straight to she and just grabble she phone and shoot she.” A sobbing Samaroo had said she was unsure how many other persons were in the car; she only saw the gunman who was holding a “small gun.” She said she was so shocked that she didn’t pay much attention to the man or the car as it drove away.
She was unaware whether the car might have been trailing them. She added that all the gunman did was snatch the phone. “They din tek no money or nothing,” she said, while repeating that the man went straight for the phone. She said that after Harriram was shot she was bleeding so much that she was unable to determine which part of her face the bullet had struck. Samaroo was in such a state of shock that she could not even remember what happened after Harriram fell to the ground. The teen was later transported to the hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Canvassing is most important
While indicating that he doesn’t know what procedures were followed in the teen’s case, Felix said that canvassing a neighbourhood is one of the information-gathering tools the police have at their disposal.
He said though that he doesn’t get the impression that this is something the police now like to do. He said that based on his training, canvassing is useful in criminal investigations. He observed that this tool is being used and in some cases it is not being applied. Asked what factors contribute to this not being done, he responded “laziness and lack of control…”
During a recent interview, Felix said that every crime has a different set of circumstances behind it adding that there are some basic things which must be done such as paying attention to the scene, cordoning off the area, interviewing persons, examining the body and looking for indicators as to whether it is possible to get fingerprints. He said that cordoning off the area is done to prevent interference.
He said if police are told that a white car was used in a crime, “that is not enough because there are thousands of white cars.” He said that in order to do something about this white car, the police will need the registration (licence plate) number which in some instances is false. “It is important to check on the registration first,” he said, adding that the police can use this to do all the other necessary groundwork to identify the owner and contact that person, among other things.
According to him, canvassing the neighbourhood to find persons who may have information is essential. He said that while he cannot comment on whether police canvassed the area after the teen was shot, he can say with certainty that this is not a tool that is popularly used by the police.
He said that in a case such as Harriram’s, the first thing the police needed to do was establish the identity of the shooter. For this, they would need a description of the perpetrator.
Asked whether having received certain information, road blocks should not be set up, he questioned what the police would be looking for and who they would be stopping. “Road blocks ought to come from good intelligence. It is not a hit and miss story … I am looking for a red car and … [I] start harassing all red cars. Road blocks ought to start with good intelligence. That is my training.”
He said that one needs a licence plate number or the model of vehicle. “These might be issues that prevent the police from jumping into a certain line of action… inadequate information,” Felix said.
He added that ascertaining where one sets up a roadblock is also an issue to consider. In the case of the Lusignan shooting, he said the vehicle could have been stashed somewhere in that same general area.
Quizzed about the identification of suspects particularly when the victim might be too traumatised to give accurate information, Felix said investigators have to canvass the area. He said ranks also need to establish if any home owners may be in possession of helpful footage from CCTV cameras.
Felix stated that when investigating crimes “police have got to scramble any lil thing that is useful because sometimes the victim himself or herself can’t help you… If you can get something to give you a clearer picture you have to use it.” He said that while there is a moral obligation to share surveillance footage, persons always look at their own personal safety first.
Felix said too that many of the younger ranks operate as though crime is easy work without appreciating how things were done in the past. Asked what needs to be done, to change this, Felix said the police commissioner would be the fittest person to answer such a question.
He said that based on what he sees in individual cases, there is need for more training particularly in criminal and traffic investigations, “from the top to the bottom.” In addition to this, supervision is needed. “Supervision is very poor and indiscipline takes over…I am seeing indiscipline too much,” he said, adding that as a result things don’t go the way they should.
Felix said he has found that Georgetown lacks a system of having a detective on call, which is critical to the effective crime response. He said one can see cases where junior ranks “are trying” but expressed the view that more can be done.
The APNU MP said too that his party has been calling on government to provide improved training for crime and traffic investigations as well as to develop a stronger intelligence component within the narcotics section.