By Raffique Shah
September 18, 2011
MANY moons ago—I must have been age 15, still attending college—a simple incident exposed me to the abuse of power, authority, uniform, maybe a combination of all these, by certain police officers. We Form Four or Five boys, as we awaited the bus to take us to our home districts, used to lime in a concrete drain (it was clean and offered some shade) that we had christened “Canal Park”.
We engaged in normal activities boys of that age would, poking fun at someone in the lime or at a hapless passer-by, trying to attract the attention of girls from nearby schools in Chaguanas, and similar harmless fun. It was a good way of de-stressing following a hard day in classes. After all, we were mostly bright boys who were pressured into delivering results that would enhance the Presentation College (Chaguanas) reputation.
One afternoon, we spotted Seeram, an ex-student who had left college to join what was then the Police Force. That he had not sat exams signalled he was not bright—which was no sin, not in our eyes anyway. Other boys had dropped out, or, having failed exams, had gone into the Force or pursued some vocation. So we saw Seeram, who was striding in our direction in uniform, as a friend.
“Seeram!” someone among us shouted, “how yuh going, boy?” Seeram pretended not to hear. Someone else tried to attract his attention. He stopped. The scowl on his face told us he was not pleased with our friendly gesture.
“Who de hell allyuh calling Seeram?” he shouted, trying to look tough. “Ah is a policeman…have some rispek for mih before ah lock up allyuh arse!” With that, he turned and walked away, leaving us in shock.
None of us had disrespected Seeram, who, besides being dunce, was “mousey” when he attended college. But the uniform made him “bad”, and, I imagine, he was envious of the “Canal Park” lime that would go on to produce many a scholar.
I was reminded of that incident with Seeram when I watched two senior officers confront unionists Michael Annissette and Ancel Roget in Tobago last Thursday. I did not hear all of what the officers told the unionists, but what caught my attention was when the junior officer said, “Doh feel yuh could come to Tobago and do what you can’t in Trinidad!” That simple statement was loaded. It suggested that the officer harboured antipathy towards unionists or Trinidadians, or maybe he was just being boorish. From what I heard and saw, Roget and Annissette showed no disrespect to the officers. They however insisted on their right to meet with their members. The police decision to disallow such meeting was unjust.
In the midst of the Emergency, I have seen a Police Youth Club march in public accompanied by “noisy instruments”, big corporations conduct promotions with full sound systems, and other activities staged that are noisier than union meetings. Hell, even “curfew parties” are not prohibited, although there is a belated effort to curb them.
Maybe the regulations prohibit public meetings—I don’t know, not having seen or read them. If this is the case, it reeks of a denial of rights that cannot be justified. It also gives currency to the unions’ claims that the Emergency was targeting them, not the criminals. There is no need for this measure since trade unions hardly undermine the country’s security as they pursue their members’ interests.
But back to the police, to the many reports of abuse of power we have seen since the imposition of the Emergency. Most officers cannot properly interpret laws and in the State of Emergency, regulations. A squad almost arrested a CCN journalist because his curfew pass did not have the vehicle number. There is no such requirement. I am certain that every day there is similar abuse of power, partly because of ignorance, and partly because of the attitude, “Me police, you dog turd!”
I don’t know if police training includes how officers interact with citizens, especially the law-abiding. I have met numerous officers who are professional and courteous, and who, even if someone unintentionally breaches a regulation or law, handle the matter with tact. That’s how it should be. But that’s not what we see as the Emergency continues.
The danger here is while most people look forward to the Emergency delivering us from the crime tsunami by the time it is lifted, abuse of power by some powerfully stupid officers could alienate citizens who could be helpful in the continuing war against crime and criminals. Since the Emergency will not eliminate crime, we will need all hands on deck in its aftermath, in what effectively is a war without end.
We cannot allow a few stupid police officers (and soldiers!), modern-day “Seerams”, to squander the gains made during the Emergency. People are making tremendous sacrifices by giving up many of their rights, by conforming to a curfew that is punishing. Business is losing money, workers face reduced earnings and other strictures, and the lower strata of the society are suffering…very quietly.
The Government and the security forces must not take these things for granted. They must not use their powers under the Emergency to neutralise trade unions. Nor must they allow rogue elements to run riot, to target young people as if they are all criminals. They must end the Emergency soon, restoring citizens’ rights, and enlisting their support in the protracted war against crime.