By Tyehimba Salandy
July 16, 2018
The recent incident of the Minister of Finance Colm Imbert’s son being robbed provided one more example of something that most Trinbagonians know deeply. That is, the law firstly and most responsively serves the elite members of the society. After being robbed on Friday, the phone was recovered on Monday in the Beetham area. Ordinary citizens were understandably outraged because the speedy police action was much different to what they may be accustomed to in similar cases.
After this apparent selective law enforcement action caused anger from the public, T&T Police Service (TTPS) head of corporate communications Ellen Lewis denied that the TTPS paid special attention to recovering Adrian Imbert’s mobile phone. She said, “We treat impartially and objectively with reports that come in relative to crimes that were committed”. In another newspaper report, public information officer ASP Michael Jackman also denied that special treatment happened in this instance. He said “Once a report is made to a police officer, as is standard procedure and it involves cell phones and other electronic devices, the investigator would make a request, if necessary, to the various sections and agencies within the TTPS to assist in locating such devices. Exercises would be conducted to secure those devices once a location has been given.”
Yet ordinary citizens have many experiences of police inaction after making reports, even after furnishing police with the location of stolen items. Relatives of mine were the victim of a home invasion and robbery earlier this year. After giving the police the location of some of the stolen items, the investigating officer kept giving a run-around. Notably, no attempt was made to track the stolen cell phones.
The responses of the TTPS communication personnel are a clear case of public relations and “protecting the image of the police service” taking precedence over truth and reality. I would have far more respect for the TTPS if they simply admitted that it was possible that the Minister’s son did receive special attention, or that ordinary members of the public sometimes do not get that level of responsiveness. That way, we could reach further in the public dialogue as to the issues that have to be addressed.
Even more strange was the response by Finance Minister Colm Imbert to the public uproar surrounding the apparent selective high-performance response by the police. Imbert denied that he used his influence as a minister or that his son received any special treatment. In this response Minister Imbert not only demonstrated amazing ignorance about what constitutes ‘special treatment’, but also provided details that support the widespread public perception that the case was not treated in an ordinary way. As reported in a newspaper story, Imbert responding to a question of whether he used his influence said: “Absolutely not. He (Adrian) called 999 and the police subsequently called me simply to get the location of the truck.”
Why did the police call Colm Imbert and not his son, if it is was the son who made the report? Is it that an ordinary police investigator just happened to have Colm’s phone number? What is clear here, is that the police knew that the person robbed was Colm Imbert’s son. Is it that Colm Imbert and the TTPS public relations people were aware of all the psychological responses of the police officers who were dealing with the case and could say with certainty that the police were not influenced by the fact that they were dealing with a wealthy, white and politically-connected person?
All citizens are not treated equally by the law or before the law… that may be an ideal, but it is not the present reality. The sooner the TTPS and politicians acknowledge this, the sooner policies and programmes could be implemented to address the root causes of why this is so. There is a large body of sociological and psychological evidence that explains that peoples’ experiences with law enforcement personnel are affected by factors such as race, colour, class and status. Is it that Minister Colm Imbert and TTPS public relations personnel want us to believe that this does not happen in Trinidad and Tobago?
No amount of political or public relations spin doctoring will convince citizens of what they know from their own experiences. The response by the police to Imbert’s robbery was not the type of response that most citizens are accustomed to. Colm and the public relations machinery of the TTPS want us to believe that a white, wealthy, politically-connected person is treated the same way as ordinary people. This shows ignorance of the realities of white privilege and class biases that are so prevalent in this country. While this will not be so in every single case, this is the general tendency.
I am glad that Imbert’s son recovered his phone and was unharmed in the incident. I only wish that the thousands of ordinary black and brown persons get the Imbert treatment in similar circumstances.
Addressing these issues is not even about ridiculing or bashing police officers. Such issues have to be addressed in every single sector of our society. The police service is often expected to address problems that go far beyond what is possible through policing. Despite this, high ranking officials of the TTPS have to take responsibility and face the reality of what happens on their watch. Many people are unaware that race, class and status biases are at the foundation of the origins of the local police service, which evolved from militias that upheld slave plantations. The Trinidad and Tobago Police Force was originally created to defend the interests of wealthy persons and to enforce laws created to control the black and brown populations. So the very origins of the local police service was about serving firstly the economic, social and political wellbeing of the elite. There is not enough awareness and addressing of this history, and thus aspects of this filter into the present policing and justice system. Police officers have a dangerous and challenging job that is exacerbated by this unaddressed history. More on this in part two.