By Raffique Shah
March 10, 2012
THE murder rate ticks along, one-a-day, like some health supplement or prescription drug, with the arrests rate lagging behind the body count, as has always been the case. Robberies and burglaries, many of them as brazen as ever, CCTV recordings notwithstanding, gallop at an alarming pace. Acts of violence, threats that could turn crimson (as in blood), and entire communities cowed by gun-toting bullies, now a national pastime, go mostly unreported, except, perhaps, to Ian Alleyne and Crime Watch.
Why? The police have more serious matters to attend to. The daily media briefings, for example, a feature that emerged during the State of Emergency, an exercise in numbers crunching, has morphed into a 21st Century policing initiative. Image is important. Stars are manufactured. Oh, I almost forgot. There was that all-important issue of executing a warrant on an errant watchman who failed to pay child maintenance. Summon the troops. Jeep-loads of armed-to-the-teeth police officers—and don’t forget the battering-ram. Or the resident Jet-Li. Move in during the still of the night. The target is armed and dangerous.
What is happening in the Police Service? Is this a case where brawn still trumps brains? Where thugs-in-uniforms are symbols of police prowess? I hate to hurl yet another missile at besieged Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs, but such is the burden of command. I think that the Canadian has been unfairly targeted in instances…a scapegoat of sorts. But given his experience, he must have known that he was in for a rough ride as CoP in a service that is riddled with rogues, a force that remains steeped in the culture of thuggery, and a country in which tolerance translates into a license to be lawless.
As is normal when columnists or others in the public make these observations, we qualify them by saying that many police officers execute their duties in a very professional manner, in accordance with their oaths of office. Sadly, all too often good policing by the many is overshadowed by the ugly actions of the few. What is worrisome is that the latter not only attract public attention, but their misconduct stands out like a big blot on the image of the entire Service.
Last Wednesday night, a number of them descended on the Laventille compound of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union. Their mission, it seems, was to arrest a night watchman who had an outstanding warrant for not paying child maintenance money as ordered by a court. You would think that one or two officers, maybe armed with batons, would suffice. Instead, what ought to have been a routine exercise turned into a display of thuggery that has always existed in the Service, but which, with the advent of CCTV cameras, is now available “live and alive” for public consumption.
And what the public saw was not nice. It was almost as if a nearby gang had descended on the union’s headquarters, bent on mayhem and murder. The police action, a wanton abuse of their powers, was ugly…and that’s putting it mildly. In the aftermath, they left a trail of destruction of property and many unanswered questions. Who authorised the raid? Why? Did the police not have serious crimes to arrest rather than batter a wayward father and in the process violate a trade union’s headquarters?
The frequency with which incidents of police brutality and abuse of power have occurred is cause for grave concern. Two media houses have felt the full force of what I can only term rank stupidity on the part of officers. Workers at Trinidad Cement Ltd, conducting a legal strike, were also subjected to police boorishness. Many other incidents within recent times, some of them now sub judice, call into question the kind of training these officers undergo.
It is not that police abuse of power is something new. Deviant elements in what was then appropriately named the Police Force used to bruise, batter, and sometimes kill civilians. Indeed, even soldiers were guilty of such misdeeds, although most times such incidents were retaliatory—as happened in Carenage in 1963. In recent times, though, soldiers have been accused of what I dub “abuse of uniform”. However, military justice is swift and often severe, not constrained by the niceties of civil or criminal law. The Commanding Officer of the Regiment (and the Coast Guard) wields immense power: he could jail and dishonourably discharge a junior officer or soldier, with loss of benefits, in short order.
With regard to police abuse, what is different is that nowadays, with monitoring devices installed just about everywhere, the miscreants are easily identified and exposed to public scrutiny. How the Service deals with guilty officers is quite another matter. In many instances the authorities simply transfer the miscreants to stations located in rural districts—which, in effect, amounts to transferring the problem, not resolving it in the best interests of the Service and the aggrieved parties. Or, some are suspended from duty with full pay for years. In rare cases, rogue officers face criminal charges, and even then they enjoy the protective cloak of their colleagues when they appear in court.
With the image of the Service in near-tatters, the public can only hope that the high command and the judicial authorities act swiftly to restore confidence in the police. In the wake of the TIWU incident, we expect to see heads roll—and not from one station to another. It is time to get rid of the roughnecks who bring the Service into disrepute. It was refreshing to hear Association president, Sergeant Anand Ramesar, call for a thorough investigation into the incident, and action on the findings. The public expects nothing less.