By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 22, 2022
A call to my grandnephew, Devon La Touche, a library assistant at the Beetham Gardens Community Library (BGCL) and the Joint Community Service Centre in Gonzales, on Wednesday and Thursday respectively, led to two instructive days.
Devon attends to the young pupils who visit the library to use the Internet and play games on the Internet. Before they do so, they are required to read for half an hour. Such is their anxiety to get to the computers that they joyously do their reading just to get to the computers. Adults hardly attend the library.
When I called Devon, he was having a session with about 28 pupils. They were playing PlayStation games, board games, and doing colouring activities. Such was the pupils’ enthusiasm that I, too, became enraptured by the joy that I heard in his voice and in the pupils’ voices.
I asked if I could visit him at the library to see what the pupils were doing, and to get a better feel for the physical and social environment. He said he would be delighted if I visited, but informed me I would have to write a letter to Oswain Subero, Senior Superintendent of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), so the police could provide me the necessary security. I did this early on Wednesday morning because an electricity blackout prevented me from sending the letter the night before.
I showed up at the library on Wednesday morning and was greeted by Insp Ian Charles, a warm, unassuming brother. He informed me that Devon had not arrived yet, but invited me to take a seat in the library.
Corporal Kevin Romany was also in the office. They told me what the IATF was doing in the Beetham Gardens, Sea Lots and, by extension, the East Port of Spain area.
The IATF had introduced several programmes to improve the lives of the youths of the area (netball competitions, parenting programmes, youth mentorship programmes, and TTA youth camp, basketball training, etc).
While these young people enjoyed the sporting aspects of the programmes, they were not as interested in the educational and cultural aspects. Although some of them did well in the SEA and CXC examinations, many feel ashamed of their illiteracy, and were reluctant to expose this deficiency to their peers.
There is a tremendous lack of self-esteem among the youths. Romany explained that their environment creates a “cognitive perception” of inadequacy that seems to hold them back. Peer pressure has added a lot of negative influences that led to a lot of antisocial behaviours, such as smoking and gambling which are reinforced by poor parenting patterns.
These officers were especially proud of their “Hearts and Minds” programme, started in 2007, to “bridge the gap between the citizens and the Police Service”.
The creators of the programme noted: “It was geared to assist the traditionally hostile communities of Laventille (towards the police) to view the police as friends, not as adversaries, whilst aiming to bring warring elements of the Laventille communities together” (Wendell Wallace, “The Social Impact of the Hearts and Minds Programme”).
At least 100,000 people reside in the 53 communities that constitute the Laventille area. Wendell Wallace points out: “The population in the district is largely of African descent with many having familial ties to other Caribbean countries.
“For many, the Laventille district has become the focal point of debate on crime control in Trinidad and Tobago.”
Paradoxically, for most of the residents, the Laventille area remains a safe space. Many of these young people never see outside of their immediate communities. Romany believes that this insidious isolation of people in their individual communities (he calls it “Community Individualism”) prevents them from getting to know one another. How, then, do we assist the youths?
Insp Charles suggests the youths are not the main problem. He believes the lack of proper parenting is one of the main problems that face these citizens. Even the younger children, in their last vacation programme, expressed their thoughts in the murals they painted on their community walls. They wrote: “Stop telling Men to Man Up”; “Stop the cycle of killing and shooting”; “Know the signs: I am valid”.
At Gonzales, close to the Inter-Agency building where “A Walk for Peace” culminated, there were two killings in the area last two weeks.
On the street corner where the meeting was held, there stood the remains of flambeaux in remembrance of those who had been killed. Hence the theme of the march: “This is not a show of force; [but] a show of love.”
The people of Gonzales were concerned about making their community safer; they resented that they were stigmatised “by a recalcitrant minority” who felt their community was unworthy. One speaker said his trauma was real. Minister Hinds declared “the madness and mayhem must stop”.
And that is why the work of the Hearts and Minds programme is so important. The police officers involved genuinely care and are doing their best to reach out to their fellow citizens. This exercise humanises them. It also helps us to see them as fragile human beings performing an important national service.
In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, father of modern democratic policing, observed that “police officers also perform roles akin to social workers, marriage counsellors, educators, priests and parents in an attempt to prevent the commission of crimes… or to discourage individuals from indulging in criminal behaviour” (quoted in Wallace).
In discharging their duties as conscientious public servants, the police officers of the Hearts and Minds programme are performing in the best tradition of the citizens’ responsibilities. It’s about time we recognise the tremendous service they render to their community.