Proving things could always get worse, the Police Service, having steadily lost public confidence, now seems set on a path toward alienation of the People’s National Movement (PNM) opposition. Or at least of its leadership.
After a single encounter between Opposition Leader Keith Rowley and Deputy Commissioner Mervyn Richardson, the PNM’s lawyer denounced the investigation about which they met as “poisoned at the very root”.
In this square-off between the PNM and the police, it was Dr Rowley who hit first. He had declared opposition, in principle, to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s referring to the police his 31-point paper said to comprise printouts of e-mails contemplating criminal acts.
“This matter falls squarely under the ambit of the Integrity Commission,” he told the May 23 PNM meeting in San Juan. There, polymath volcanologist Dr Rowley disputed points of law with the straw-woman attorney Prime Minister he derided as a “Seventh Standard law student”.
The “perfect crime,” he charged, had been committed by the “criminals in the Parliament”, among whose e-mail addresses his cache of messages were supposedly circulated. But investigation of such wrongdoings called for work way above the competence of ordinary T&T police gumshoes. Or this is the official PNM position. Dr Rowley urged Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon to “get senior-counsel advice”.
Integrity investigators, prompted by senior counsel: this describes the elite qualifications for investigators capable of authenticating or repudiating his found material. In later stipulations, the PNM listed information technology expertise, and residence abroad.
For Dr Rowley, the idea was insupportable that his document and his office might be sniffed over and dusted for authorship and other fingerprints by know-nothing T&T police losers. Least of all, Deputy Commissioner Richardson whom he had twice elaborately disparaged by name:
“Richardson gets his two salaries… (and he) is beholden to the Cabinet to retain his post-retirement job.” As for acting Commisioner Stephen Williams, Dr Rowley grudgingly conceded that he is “trying his best”.
And so, five years later, the PNM finds itself again in apprehended ownership of the T&T police problem. The list of “Noes” excludes Dr Rowley’s name, from back in July 2008, when the then-ruling PNM caucus voted against appointing then Senior Superintendent Stephen Williams as Police Commissioner.
Though number 26 in the seniority pecking order, foreign headhunters and the local Police Service Commission had named him winner of the international competition. On one fateful afternoon, 22 PNM MPs vetoed his nomination, triggering a reset of a selection “process” that today still looms like a nightmare redux.
The bigger half of today’s Opposition MPs had belonged to the Patrick Manning administration, which erected the top-police selection “process” as a conceptual parallel to the unusable monuments high-rising into the Port of Spain skyline. Through the same “process”, Stephen Williams and Mervyn Richardson had eventually come to their present positions. The two-year term of Canadian Dwayne Gibbs marked the only non-acting Commissioner stint since November 2007.
An acting Commissioner, and succession uncertainty, have constituted the centrepiece tableau in a serial drama of all-round unhappiness with policing and “law enforcement”. Dr Rowley’s lack of confidence in topmost police officers mirrors that of ordinary citizens who hope against hope that a “war” against crime is on, and that the forces on our side stand a fighting chance.
The PNM leader and Faris Al-Rawi, emerging as the all-purpose colleague-lawyer, after the model of Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, get the headlines for criticising the conduct of investigations affecting them. They feed distrust already endemic about police capacity.
The rest of us, reading the fine print, gasp at the ease with which murderers, imparting reality to the reporter’s cliche, routinely “make good their escape”. Off the front pages last week, the story is reported of a couple who, out on bail for multi-million dollar fraud, had fled to England. Deported from there, they again “eluded police at Piarco and have since disappeared”—to Venezuela this time?
Minor lawbreaking and major crime flourish because of “lame” policing. Dr Rowley and counsellor Al-Rawi pretend to be scandalised by a familiar laid-back approach. Police sense of mission is no keener than that of people in other categories of the T&T workforce.
Simple assassinations, carried out with impunity, have become so commonplace as to enable most people to expect it as something that could come calling at any time. Well, police are people too. So far from being stirred into action, proactive or reactive, officers feed the media labels such as “gang-related” and stock descriptions of victims such as “known to the police”. Numberless cases evidently go cold overnight; most “investigations” go nowhere fast.
In today’s world, then, life is cheap. Notoriously cheaper in Honduras, whose shores are also washed by our Caribbean Sea, but where you cannot imagine US Vice-President Joe Biden to come calling. Low-achieving police are part of the story of both places: in Honduras where 151 officers were killed over the last two years, only 20 cases have been persecuted.
Things could get worse here. As the PNM’s attacks damage whatever police morale is left, the party shopping desperately for political support could find itself bound by the rule posted in stores: “You break it, it’s yours.”
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