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Dangerous ambivalence toward police

By Theodore Lewis

 In his calypso, “Mr Trinidad”, Maestro was able to diagnose a national malady, which is that “Trinbagonians don’t know what they want” and that “our sense of reasoning goes and comes”. He said we did not want the Public Order Act, but then tried to make Karl Hudson-Phillips prime minister. We said we did not want Eric Williams any more but would not let him leave when he said he wanted to. We criticise the way we live; but then offer no alternative. We don’t want democracy, but then we don’t want to be revolutionary either. Maestro at his incisive best.

A prototypic case of the malady is our ambivalence toward crime and toward the police. We wanted the murders to cease, but did not want a state of emergency, which, on the evidence, has been the most effective deterrent. When the state of emergency ended, people celebrated. Then, predictably, the murders resumed.

Now there are questions being raised about the actions of the police. We are doing so in the middle of a crime problem of global scale—this one short month after the brazen execution of Dana Seetahal, and seve­ral months after the equally braz­en hold-up of an armoured vehicle carrying money for the banks, the latter taking place on a public highway, and involving the murder of a security guard.

The criminals are winning this game on evidence. Just look at the scoreboard. Now the psychology is on their side. It is the police who are coming under scrutiny.

De we want the police to fight crime or not? Without the security forces, who can go into Morvant or Richplain, or Laventille, to apprehend anybody? 

The evidence is there is great hostility toward police in communities that are under gangster control, to be seen whenever there is any untoward incident involving cops. The victim is always projected as a good boy who never got in any trouble, loved his granny, got grades, rode his bike, was in the choir. The resulting community hostility then vibrates in the larger society, and all sorts of human-rights voices then join in calling for police restraint and police enquiries. 

But given the pace of murders in this country, we had better keep our eyes on the statistics that matter since I shudder to think how vulnerable we would be without the police.

We have had separate police shootings in Morvant resulting in deaths. In the first of these, the Lady Young Road was closed down due to fires set on the road. This was accompanied by the usual commu­nity outpourings against the police. These outpourings have led some to call for hearings and investigations of police actions. 

But there was, within the same period, an outrageous execution-style murder of two boys in Morvant. And what was the community response? The latest is that the mother of the children has to leave the community under threat—threat of death, in case you came in late. Like the threat that caused the journalist to leave town.

So where was the demonstration in Morvant against this brazen killing of children in their area, one victim being only nine? The answer is there was none. 

 Every day young black men “drop” in these communities at the hands of each other. The response to that, typically, is ritual flambeau, set out like deyas, and music suited to a send-off to gangsters’ paradise.

As a country we have to decide what it is we want. Our police officers are under strain, mainly because we have too few officers in the service. The civil disobedience we see in response to police action is disobedience tantamount to following orders. When the gunmen say go out and burn tyres, that is what you do. If they say dance and wine, and stick your fingers in the face of the police, that is what you do.

But there is no place in today’s T&T for police who are wimps, and who must stand there while ruffians come within an inch of their noses and cursing them. Our police must be strong and resolute. We as a country must say unequivocally to the police they are expected to act according to codes of practice, but they have a right to use deadly force where situations warrant.

When you send armies out to war, you also set forth the strict rules of engagement. And so it must be with police and indeed soldiers here. They continue to be the last line of defence for us on this little island.

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