In the potted folk history that shapes my own understanding, January 2, 2004 marks a signal turning point in latter-day Trinidad and Tobago’s life and times. The place was Whitehall, then the Prime Minister’s Office where, at 4.15 p.m., Patrick Manning delivered to Everard Snaggs the letter of appointment as Police Commissioner.
Since that moment, T&T has never been the same. Volumes spoken in that Prime Ministerial exercise of imperial preference have resonated over the succeeding decade, stirring alarms that time and again rally people to the barricades for “constitution reform”, or otherwise raise their consciousness.
Folk historians trace a direct line from that Manning display of executive presumption to the constitution reform project advanced last week by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. In 2004, Mr Manning was constitutionally entitled to veto the Police Commissioner selection by the Police Service Commission.
Before Keith Rowley converted from follower into dissenter, the reigning disposition championed abolition of the Police Service Commission. Legislative hit man Colm Imbert advertised admiration for the New York system which, he said, empowers the Mayor to hire and fire the police chief.
Meanwhile, in constitutionally retarded T&T, that power belonged to the untouchable Police Service Commission. The Prime Minister retained just the reactionary option of a surly veto.
Under chairman Christopher Thomas, the PSC declined collaboration with the process of its demise sought by the government. Never again, swore chairman Thomas, would a prime minister get to deliver the top cop’s letter, in pretence of claim to such power of appointment.
Under Chief Justice Sat Sharma, the High Courts too appeared to have joined the fray. Rulings denounced as unconstitutional efforts by Mr Manning to interfere with the Statutory Authorities Service Commission appointments of Marlene Coudray and Devant Maharaj. Mr Sharma himself loudly proposed dropping Prime Minister from the grey eminences deciding which lawyers to grant Queen’s Counsel silk.
But this folk history reading holds that the iconic Manning-Snaggs back-slapping sharpened the mood of resistance and rebellion at the constitutional-reform barricades. Police reform was a major thrust of the administration. The January 2004 image illustrated where, without intervention, such reform was headed.
Police reform implied more than “transformation” and upgrade of professional and other technologies. It also entailed constitutional reform and, as seen again today, meant having to muster Parliamentary majorities requisite for the changes.
Veto power for police reform legislation lay with the opposition UNC, to whom the Manning-Snaggs embrace looked fearsomely emblematic. Legislative wrangling went on through 2006. By early 2007, the Police Service Act had entrenched elaborate provisions for selection of a Police Commissioner, hardly understood or noticed then, and widely reviled today.
Today’s revilers include those who, as MP and Senator in 2006, participated, by commission or omission, in the passage of “reform” legislation. Real-time warnings about the process, regrettably disregarded, had come from chairman Thomas. MP Rowley, however, never spoke up as someone sharing the misgivings of that doubting Thomas.
Among other things, the process entails inviting bids toward selection of a headhunting firm; advertising the vacancies here and abroad; and shortlisting candidates for interview. The candidate eventually selected by the PSC must then be proposed to the House of Representatives where the veto, formerly exercised by the Prime Minister, collectively resides.
T&T has been comprehensively disserved by this arrangement, which has also produced two unmistakable victims in Stephen Williams (twice), and the equally luckless and largely unlamented Dwayne Gibbs.
In 2010, Dr Gibbs, white and Canadian, having won approval of the Partnership MPs, was appointed Commissioner. Hounded at every turn, his “21st Century Policing” plan hardly given a chance, he barely survived two years in the position. Now- Deputy Commissioner Williams was appointed to act, the glass ceiling looming ever lower over his head.
Last week, an improbable third victim of the 2007 legislation was identified by Dr Rowley. That was Ramesh Deosaran, who resigned two months after reappointment as PSC chairman. With Dr Rowley, he had been part of the Parliament (as a Senator) that passed the Act.
“I get the sense that it is frustration,” said Dr Rowley, voicing what he wanted to believe. Prof Deosaran’s resignation letter had expressed no “frustration”. It itemised three accomplishments, but omitted that of removing Commissioner Gibbs.
Opposition PNM party line today blames “shotgun” bullying by the 2006 UNC opposition for the “unwholesome arrangement for the appointment of a commissioner”. It concedes no role for PNM MPs in contriving that “arrangement”. Nor does it admit that its leader’s 2004 photo opportunity provoked the reaction that brought about the arrangement.
A compelling folk history, thus being wished away, stands firm, upholding the reality that it records.