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T&T police: Failure at any cost

By Lennox Grant

You know how far you are from Trinidad and Tobago when the news of the day covers a meeting on "the economics of policing". Hardly, in everyday T&T, do "economics" and "policing" fit into the same sentence, let alone convey a relationship of purposes.

At that meeting in Ottawa, Canada, last week, however, the chief constable of Staffordshire in the UK was reporting "sweeping budget cuts" that had depleted his force by hundreds of officers and civilian staff. The chief was seeking to make do by "recruiting more (lower-cost) civilian staff and volunteers to work with full-time police officers". 

On January15, when the T&T media counted 16 murders, least-cost reckoning of police operations and options could claim no identifiable owner or responsibility centre. The real world came closest to recognition when Carnival organisers in Couva complained about officers' extra-duty pay demands for policing festivities offered free of charge to regional participants.

Except to private-sector Carnival promoters, policing is assumed available as a free service, as part of a general freeness underwritten by the State.

The police, with their weapons and equipment, their cars and other rolling stock—T&T seems always to need more of. At what cost, who knows; who cares? In today's T&T terms, it is "out-of-timing" to count the cost of achieving, or maintaining, the (2012) level of 377 murders a year.

It's a scary thought that a lower investment in policing could yield the return of a higher murder count. But T&T is scared witless, and innocent of cold economic number-crunching.

Fresh from Canada, Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs had advanced the heretical proposition that the content of "police work" inside T&T stations had to be critically interrogated for cost incurred and benefit derived. He compared the numbers of officers per thousand of T&T population with those of places elsewhere, and declined to bow to the local superstition that the service is forever "short-staffed". He had to go.

The Gibbs ouster (at whatever cost) thus became the first ostensible credit to the account of new National Security Minister Jack Warner, the man with the latest "crime plan". Before that, however, the Warner Way had advertised itself as an exercise of thinking outside the box of local conventional wisdoms.

He had come to office as transport minister with two such notions, to be hopefully translated into policy doables. One was that East-West Corridor traffic could be eased by enabling wider commuter use of the Priority Bus Route.

Something was tried. No potentially instructive assessment was made of the effort. Then the transport portfolio was withdrawn from Warner control.

His other notion, more nearly targeted to at least rhetorical crime fighting, aimed to bring illegal PH taxi driving under regulation. PH cars, long advertising the demonstration effect of what criminals and others can openly get away with, had long escaped even the possibility of submission to law and order.

A conspiracy of silence, including Mr Warner's, remains over what those initial notions of his achieved, or appeared capable of achieving. Mr Warner had yet another notion. It was the creation of differently enabled cohorts to support police work in traffic management and regulation.

That came to life as the establishment of traffic wardens, a category of attractively uniformed personnel assigned to support regular police in traffic management and law enforcement, of which the regular officers in grey and navy almost never seem able to take charge. Nothing more exemplifies the locho character imparted by the T&T Service than the free-rein regime of the road experienced as a result of police absence—as opposed to presence.

With numbers down to a third of its approved strength, the Traffic Branch easily qualifies as a disaster area. Apart from the relative handful of unarmed traffic wardens looking largely bewildered in the daytime, no disaster relief efforts appear in this area.

Late in 2012, another Warner notion was floated in the proposal to train and empower soldiers for police work. The notion, never elaborated into practical flesh and blood terms, succeeded in causing knees to jerk in opposition to what was sensationally imagined as paving the way to a military coup.

The Police Social and Welfare Association immediately telegraphed resistance to the idea of soldiers invested with police powers. In furtherance of a disposition, demonstrated during the time of commissioner Gibbs, to run a guerrilla state with the state of the Police Service, the association instructed its members against allowing precepted soldiers to bring prisoners into police stations.

Unabashedly, the association advanced its own "class" interest, favouring the recruitment of more of the same kind of regular officers. This is a process slowly underway—but is welcomed for its potential to boost the association's own resources of dues-paying members.

With all its demonstrable failures, then, T&T policing remains resistant to the least prospect of change in management and outlook, and far removed from influence by the dismal and distant discipline of "economics". A permanently fat state, overseen by an unclued public, will simply pay whatever costs it incurs. 

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