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The Wild, Wild Mess

By Sunity Maharaj

 The best argument for keeping the army out of the civilian arena must surely be the garrulous Captain Gary Griffith.

His language and temperament, combined with gung-ho tunnel vision and an impatient instinct for war over wisdom, make him supremely unfit for our dangerous passage through these times. Like a soldier under orders, this is a man on a mission. Quickly, he has moved to fill the leadership vacuum in the police service. 

Whatever arm’s length existed between the Ministry of National Security and the Police Service has been gobbled up by the over-anxious, over-ambitious one-time army captain, ever-ready to deliver summary judgment at the first phone call from the media. Having openly bid for it, he has snagged the lucrative LifeSport programme which, pending audit, is on its way to the Defence Force for management and implementation.

And now here he comes with the Cybercrime Bill which, if proclaimed, will effectively criminalise the entire country, stymie the embryonic software development sector and strangle the media. It might also land the entire cabinet in jail along with members of parliament.

What Trinidad and Tobago needs is an effective cybercrime strategy for a professional unit within the Police Service, not a new agency under the direct control of a politician. To the extent that children, in particular, have to be protected in cyberworld, such provisions, already existing under the Children’s Act 2012 should be strengthened, where necessary. Similarly with other provisions that are being dragged under this new legislation but which properly belong under various existing pieces of legislation.

For years now, the relentless erosion of the Police Service has been opening up a dangerous space for political control over the policing function. The indecision over management appointments, unconscionably prolonged staffing deficiencies and a general lack of will for professionalising the Police Service beyond the constraints of the colonial legacy has emasculated it to the point where it enjoys little public trust. Where other ministers of national security have tip-toed around the opportunity, Capt Griffith has no such hesitations. 

The character played by Gary Griffith is a figure familiar to history.  In some ways, he is a creation of public anxiety, conjured up by our fear and longing for law and order. Our fear is what breathes life into personalities like him. Sometimes, as in the case of Napoleon, they become larger than life itself. 

While T&T’s political environment is unlikely to allow Gary Griffith much room for his expanding ambitions, the situation still calls for care and vigilance. The instability created by gang wars and criminality with impunity has so panicked us that we may not notice the ground slipping away from under us until it is too late. Eternal vigilance is, indeed, the price of liberty.

In recent days, we have seen the most startling behaviour by the police, the Government, the media and the rank-and-file of T&T in response to the killings in Morvant. Evidence has been seriously tampered with by police officers carting away bodies of persons shot by them; a senior police officer brought an alleged eyewitness to the same police shootings to give testimony on the officers’ behalf on a TV show; parents and funeral homes have allowed another talkshow host unfettered access to push and probe the children’s bodies and pronounce on the innocence and guilt of the shooters and the shot; the Prime Minister has “unleashed the dogs of war” which, if one had to guess, came straight from the lips of her war-mongering National Security minister; and the minister himself continues to lead the pack with his declared position that when it comes to criminals, the police must “do it to them” before they “do it to us” and we, the public, have had no reservations about assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner against all sides.

In this wild, wild mess, it is as if there is no court of law in this land, no due process for establishing innocence and guilt, and no limits for circumscribing power, only the court of public opinion via the media. 

Admittedly, these are dangerous times. Apart from the drug money, state funding of the order of billions of dollars is fuelling new subsets of organised crime. Although the People’s Partnership administration did not invent the system, it has been exploiting it to the max with predictable consequences for the entire country.

One example is the $300 million, three-month Colour Me Orange initiative which sunk like Eric Williams’ Telco phone in the Gulf of Paria, without a trace of the promised improvement. And this is just one programme from the tricks bag of Government spending which is sold as social support but is really designed to buy the peace and, ultimately, organise the vote. 

The danger here is that, as the system breaks down under the repeated political failure to transform the conditions that are fuelling crime, popular opinion will begin to fall on the side of doing it to them before they do it to us. No questions asked. 

Sometimes it is hard to hold the line on due process. In the face of a brazen disrespect for life and cold-hearted criminality, anger and overwhelming impotence can carry us beyond the limits of our own beliefs and commitment to justice. But we have to temper our anger with wisdom and hold fast to our commitment to justice. The only viable way forward is to strengthen the systems that will protect the rights and freedoms of us all, now and into the future. That, in turn, depends on strong, effective and independent institutions, including the Police Service. But none of this will be possible without politics that is truly representative and responsible. And that begins, not with the politicians, but with each one of us.

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