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From ‘hot spots’ to ‘sweet spots’

By Lennox Grant

Recognising it as one to keep, I clipped the photo last March of a prisoner making the “perp walk” to court, handcuffed but also with feet shackled. He had been recaptured in Sangre Grande some weeks after having escaped from prison in St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The ankle restraint, reducing perpetrators’ gait to a shuffle-shamble, and inhibiting any dash to freedom, is familiar from US media images. For me at least, the shackles were making a first-time appearance in T&T.

I assumed the treatment to be reserved for those on the run from foreign authorities, caught holing up in T&T. That news photo came back to mind last week as I read the Emancipation Support Committee’s release demanding an investigation into, brutalities inflicted upon inmates at an immigration detention centre that I had only vaguely known to exist.

Police, the Committee claimed, had “launched a violent attack on inmates” who had been protesting against their indefinite detention. Two inmates had needed hospital attention.

The story didn’t appear to have been covered in mainstream news reporting. Amid this Emancipation season, the Committee was championing what it represented as a long-ignored cause of Caricom and African detainees held without hope in a T&T twilight zone.

Inside that setting, on which a spotlight rarely falls, dark dramas play out in the name of administration and law enforcement. Apart from the Emancipation Support Committee, no identifiable watchdog role is even imagined.

Beyond condemning what it had heard, the Committee made apparently well-informed demands. They included immediate release of detainees married to T&T citizens; speedier deportation of those without T&T “family ties”; and release “on humanitarian grounds” of others detained more than six months. Another demand was for media “investigation”.

It was news to me, as it must have been to others, that “undocumented aliens”, as the Americans say, have been locked up here for more than six months. Undoubtedly, their situation must rank low on the priority list of an overburdened, indifferent, and incurably slow-moving bureaucracy.

The detention centre was just then due to receive a fresh haul of potentially long-term residents. The place would be the inevitable destination of 54 foreigners (all but seven, female) rounded up at nightclubs in Penal and Chase Village.

About some of them, Newsday reported, “police believe were brought in to service the local sex trade”.

By when that story appeared, the Express’ 2014 “murder toll” had reached 242.  Into all but a small fraction of which, the official line assures that “investigations are continuing”. But the police were evidently concerned to show themselves fighting crime across a broader front.

At least one superstar figure, Senior Superintendent Johnny Abraham, of the signature Panama hat, was named among the officers and outfits marshalled for the weekend raids on nightclubs. The credit list included the Counter Trafficking Unit; Central Division Crime Unit; Special Branch; South Western Division; CID; and Guard and Emergency.

The strength and the specialization range of the forces mustered suggest the importance to the policing mission of these nightclub swoops. The Penal and Chase Village clubs, hardly qualifying as “hot spots”, must rather be ranked as “sweet spots”.

The sweetness was contagious. Inside Immigration Division offices, intolerably afflicted, its PSA-affiliated staff say, by insufferable health and safety conditions, officers had selflessly resumed duties to “process” the illegal influx.

By their very existence, these “sweet spots”, bathed in soft-light illegality, serve to ensure police time is not monopolized by the grubby and thankless investigation of murders. 

Operations against foreigners, whose presence and work in T&T are both “undocumented”, show results in live human bodies, who may later be eye-catchingly showcased in photo-opportunity “perp walks” to and from court.

Relatively effortless exercises, in which foreigners are taken prisoner, answer the thunderstorm of criticism prompted by low murder detection rates, and must yield satisfactions. Moreover, crackdowns on people and places linked to a “sex trade” dependably gratify a constituency of moralists and religionists.

Maybe the police also police themselves better these days. Seldom seen are reports, such as that one six years ago, when a senior officer faced allegations of having taken out of custody four Colombian women who had been caught in the act of illegally entering T&T by pirogue.  As the news story went, he took them skinny-dipping at Clifton Hill, took them to dinner, and derived his rewards.

Scorning the contemporary, non-macho, image of the police, Opposition Leader Keith Rowley called the Service, with its acting Commissioner, “headless”.  It had been converted, Dr Rowley charged, into a “eunuch”.

Two days later, confirming that the today image is equably received by the Police Service Commission, Stephen Williams was reappointed for yet another stint as acting Police Commissioner. Chairman Ramesh Deosaran once again damned and blasted the legislated “recruitment process” toward a substantive Police Commissioner. As far as he could see, decision on a permanent CoP is “nowhere near the horizon”.

Somewhere over the rainbow, then, lies the promise of a new Commissioner, installed with a longer than six-month contract, and mandated to create a Service, more geared to Olympian achievement, and less needful of the fulfillment of low-fence triumphs against illegal immigrants.

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