Saturday, February 24, 2018

Calling the cops to account


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Are police officers in Trinidad and Tobago getting away with murder? No one can say because investigations into police killings hang fire for years, with less than one in ten incidents getting a verdict.

And, given that police officers kill an average of two persons every month, this means there are a substantial number of officers in the Police Service who continue to operate without anyone knowing if they are guilty or innocent of unjustified homicide.

Moreover, the commanding officers in the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) do not seem to consider this issue particularly urgent. As reported in yesterday's Express, the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) more than one year ago submitted requests for reports about 18 incidents in which people were killed by police officers. To date, the Commissioner of Police has not deigned to respond. Presumably, the PCA chose these particular cases (most from 2011 and 2012, but one which dates back to 2006) because particular questions surround the 18 killings.

This lack of response highlights fundamental problems with both the Police Service and the PCA. The authority does not have independent investigators, but has to rely on active police officers to carry out such enquiries. While the officers so appointed may perform their duties impartially, the perception of himself investigating himself will always result in mistrust from citizens.

Additionally, a completion rate of under ten per cent hardly creates an image of efficiency on the part of the investigating officers. This low rate also means, given the number of police killings over the past decade, there are now a couple hundred officers within the service who have killed in the line of duty without anyone, save themselves and their fellow officers, knowing whether or not those killings were justified.

In 2003, the government made a commitment to replace the PCA by an external review authority which would investigate all complaints by members of the public against police officers. That entity was to be functional by 2007, but seems to have died a quiet death. It doesn't really matter what the body is, though; what matters is how it is constituted, particularly with respect to having independent investigators.

In the present situation, the Police Service can always stonewall any investigation by the PCA. However, under Sections 22, 45 and 47 of the PCA Act, the authority has the power to impose penalties on anyone who obstructs the authority's investigations, including a $50,000 fine and imprisonment for five years—and a year with no response would seem a reasonable time-frame to define "obstruct".

If the hierarchy of the Police Service continues to treat the authority with such scant respect, maybe the commissioners should remind them of their powers.