Police Powers vs People’s Empowerment

By A.T. Freeman

It’s reported that on Saturday 27 June three people were killed in Morvant, Trinidad in the latest episode of deadly police action. Videos circulating on social media appear to show the lethal force which resulted in the fatalities of the youths, named as Joel Jacob, Noel Diamond and Israel Clinton. A police officer (PC Allen Moseley) is said to have been killed at some time prior to the deaths of the trio. In the following days ongoing protests erupted in several marginalized areas of Port of Spain and environs and at least one protestor, named as Ornella Greaves, has been killed, allegedly by indiscriminate police fire.

It is reported that 43 people have died at the hands of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service [TTPS] in the first 6 months of 2020. This is a serious problem in society. Demands for justice, for an end to criminalization of communities, for social problems to be sensitively resolved seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Statements attributed to the Commissioner of Police [CoP] Gary Griffiths a few weeks ago would suggest that whilst the authorities may be listening they have no answers other than an increase in police powers.  Commissioner Griffiths’ controversial comments via social media made in the midst of demonstrations in Trinidad and Tobago in support of the global #BlackLivesMatter protests attest as much. The Commissioner was correct that the demonstrations highlighted police brutality.  He also implied that killings perpetrated by criminals in TT rarely generate such passionate response. Many felt that his remarks were ill-judged and they certainly inspired several rebuttals.

It is true that the worldwide indignation sparked by the police killing of George Floyd has seen protests against police violence and police impunity.  These protests manifest in different ways in different countries, TT included. Of that the Commissioner is not wrong and his observation accurate. In this sense his views on the international dimension could have addressed the collaboration between Caribbean police services/forces and their UK and US counterparts who are said to share training and in many cases use the same equipment, deploy the same methods and act just as violently. Perhaps it’s not a link he recognizes.

Police Killings

More glaring however, was the supposed equivalence the Commissioner identified between violent anti-social crime and police violence.  Perhaps the CoP chose to ignore the clear distinction between extra-judicial police killings and violent crime. The latter is investigated and when the alleged perpetrators are apprehended, they are punished, often with on-the spot summary execution. The former however, though receiving mandatory investigation by the Police Complaints Authority [PCA], is often treated as an unfortunate event at best, and cheered on by police and the media at worst. Victims families rarely achieve justice. There certainly is a difference in outcome and in how these problems are addressed. Not a few have also pointed out that Griffiths’ has, in the past, uttered stigmatizing remarks referring to certain communities and people as ‘pests’ and ‘roaches’ to be stamped out. Such statements are believed by many to be exacerbating an already volatile atmosphere.

Perhaps the CoP well understands the distinction between extra judicial killing and violent crime. In any case both require political solutions. Violent crime has a definite source and requires use of the law to punish criminals and also political, social and criminological investigation to address the root causes of this social ill. Police violence similarly requires debate and discussion to identify why an armed force can act with apparent impunity and is seen as being above the law.  In respect to both of these issues the missing factor of enquiry is the absence of the people from meaningful intervention and debate.

With violent crime rampant in Trinidad and Tobago and so many areas of life criminalized, the political elites appear to have turned to the only authority that remains – law and order – police powers. The authority usually enshrined within State institutions, many of which are discredited, lacking credibility and unfit for purpose – Parliament included – is being substituted for ‘do as we say’ and ‘might makes right’. The transformation of the police force to a seemingly unregulated, repressive entity is a dangerous development.

Empowerment

Ending police impunity and tackling anti-social crimes both require empowerment of the people. Police Powers and criminalization of the people are not solutions.

With such a worldview the violent anti-social crime the Commissioner of Police says he is concerned with can be scrutinized with the same zeal as that which has informed the global #BLM protests.

[Photo – Front cover Newsday TT 01/07/2020, Photo By Jeff Mayers]

See also: https://www.cnc3.co.tt/griffiths-comments-on-killing-of-girl-2-angers-activists-scandalous-and-irresponsible/

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