Where were the policewomen when they were most glaringly in need? I refer to last Monday’s docudrama set in the place fantastically misnamed Beetham Gardens.
No garden or greenery shows in the footage of women and men spectacularly enacting roles of righteous rage in that peri-urban landscape. “Gardens” thus bespeaks an aspiration or, at worst, an unacknowledged sarcasm about the prospects of an area named after T&T’s last and much-favoured colonial governor.
At the Beetham last week, it was women, thrusting themselves into the faces of police and soldiers, who caught my eye at least. But none of the helmeted and armoured troops, weapons at the ready, looked clamourously female.
Parading two days before, columns of women in police and military uniforms, submachine guns cradled against their breasts, led by equally skirted officers holding upraised swords, had reminded the nation of the gender breakdown of its national-security human resource.
As the cameras in the Beetham panned the ranks on the side of law and order, however, no skirts showed. It appeared even inconceivable that a woman could be in charge of the forces confronting such surging aggressiveness, in which women looked conspicuously represented.
In some minds, something called “a woman’s touch” resonated as so old-fashioned a throwback as not to warrant notice, let alone mention. If the commander had been Monica, Merle or Myrna, instead of Deputy Commissioner Mervyn, how would the face-off have turned out? Would a mature female officer have been more successful in communicating reasonableness on that occasion of rampant rage?
How women are deployed and empowered in an organisation formally dedicated to meritocracy, figures in a larger story about the law-enforcement officer class, and its dispositions toward engagement, strategy and tactics. On that day, the Beetham people displayed more confidence in themselves, and in the measure they had taken of police incapacity, reaching even witlessness.
For the forces arrayed so fearsomely before them, they projected attitudes approaching contempt. Guns pointed and fired, and gas released, at ground level combined with the intimidating rumble of helicopter overflights to convey the character of the overwhelming force monopolised and marshalled in favour of the State.
The people against whom all this was aimed showed themselves largely untroubled. Over at least the seven years since then reporter Marcia Henville starred in Gayelle’s infamous coverage of a Laventille anti-police protest, people acting up in the Beetham and elsewhere have learned that, despite the hardware “assets” brought to bear, police remain clueless and even helpless. Initiative lies, always, with the visible and invisible lawless. As cameras roll, open resistance to force mobilised in the name of law and order enjoys the assurance of impunity.
“Probably we can do new things,” Trevor Paul had wished aloud in July 2004, upon being appointed Commissioner. By the end of Patrick Manning PNM rule in 2010, Mr Paul had long been history. Prominent among the “new things” being tried was the international head-hunting toward selection of a commissioner.
Once again, last month, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Opposition Leader Keith Rowley agreed on “the need to devise a new system for the appointment of a Commissioner of Police”. They also agreed on “strengthening” the Service and on building “morale”.
Such goals had been identified, and pursued, before. One result had been the recruitment of Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs, and the mission and mandate he brought to declare into being “21st Century Policing”.
Over the year since he retreated to his home on the Albertan range, T&T experienced a roll-back of the Gibbs initiatives, from new uniforms to operational strategies. In the present no-man’s land of nothing doing, the Social and Welfare Association enjoys billing equal to or better than yet another acting commissioner. Its leader, Inspector Anand Ramesar, dismissed polygraph testing of officers as “an old idea”. He called for unspecified “young people who would turn the Police Service around and repel criminal activity”.
At 52, acting Commissioner Stephen Williams likely counts as beyond the age range of the “young” officers whose advancement the Association champions.
Meanwhile, no identifiably over-arching idea or purpose has succeeded Dr Gibbs’ “21st Century Policing” now effectively repudiated. As death squads and bounty killers get a free hand, the public must see the police as marking time.
“This is the hardest work they do for the year,” a man on the sidewalk cracked, loudly enough for them to hear as tunicked officers marched in the sun along Tragarete Road on Independence Day. Two days later, such lack of public sympathy and respect was being dramatised in the Beetham.
Policewomen are doubtless subject to the same loss of public regard. But Deputy Commissioner Monica or Merle might likely have been moved to a more appropriate response, when 81-year old Inez raised her skirt high, in dishonour and disrespect of womanhood everywhere.