Wednesday, February 21, 2018

'Investigation' gets a bad name


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What comes to mind as the icon of choice for the term "investigation", as loosely used in Trinidad and Tobago?

Picture the spectral images, in white head-to-toe body suits, officiating in almost a priestly manner, at scenes of dead bodies.

Among those who know only what they see in the media, nobody can tell whose bulk, male or female, inhabits such a body suit. The occupants are presumed to comprise some category of police, qualified by specialist knowledge to fill in the blanks of the narrative leading to the discovery of "charred remains" in a pick-up belonging to one Jennifer Ali.

  That was one story last week, which may never become a "case", in the sense of a proven atrocity, for which some accused is alleged responsible. The White Body Suits, first responders to tragedy accountable to murder, also represent the vanguard operatives in a numbered project called "Investigation". 

An Express story identified a "Cpl Smith from the Freeport Police (as) investigating the matter." Now, what does an investigation in motion look like, sound like; what are its vital signs?

Is Cpl Smith single-handedly, or with what help, assembling all the elements—from finding the chassis number to verify ownership, through interviewing those who last saw, or last heard the victim on the phone, to tracking down and isolating suspects? Such activities readily figure in my layman's imagination about how the Cpl Smiths gather evidence to provide what DPP Roger Gaspard calls a "realistic prospect of conviction".

Maybe 90 per cent of such investigative projects fail to produce any result reaching the DPP's criterion of "evidentially sustainable".

By definition in T&T, murder implies a dead-end whodunit mystery.

President Anthony Carmona, having seen it all from both the DPP's and the judge's chambers, finally denounced the practice of sweeping murder investigations under a carpet labelled "Gang-Related".

He might have added that, under another carpet ("Driver Lost Control"), investigators also routinely sweep road deaths.

It is "investigation" that has got a bad name. Scandal broke in August-September 2009, when handguns, shotguns, ammunition, and narcotics were found hidden in the ceiling and elsewhere at St Joseph Police Station. 

One year later, some 40 officers having been transferred, acting Commissioner James Philbert described the investigation as "almost finished".

He added: "We are still doing a few things. We're trying to wake up a dead."

With James Philbert now history, and his "dead" still to be legally resurrected, life goes on. Most times, "investigation" is expected to lead nowhere.

Eventually, the DPP himself sounds unsure if he wants to be associated with such projects. Last November, urging the Colman Commission to deviate from some lines of enquiry, he wrote: "It is my intention to direct that a full-scale criminal investigation also be commenced…".

His March 11 letter to the Express, however, said: "Since the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions has no investigative powers, I… can act only on what the police provide. This may be unsatisfactory but… my Office has no investigative powers or capability."

With or without DPP direction, the "launch" of an investigation is thus more an act of faith than of realistic hope that it will reveal any advancement for law and order.

Two weeks before March 1, when the National Security Council instructed acting Commissioner Stephen Williams to investigate "Flying Squad" activities, he had, on his own initiative, publicly "launched an investigation" into that UFO so mysterious as to merit two police "probes".

Meanwhile, other investigative projects appear to presume upon the availability of adequate capacity and firm commitment in the police and other agencies, apparently including the media.

Thus, the Integrity Commission found its name in headlines claiming that it had referred a case involving Sport Minister Anil Roberts to the DPP.

The reports said this had been done "for investigation"—despite the DPP's ambivalence at least over his own capacity and commitment in that area.

Moreover, an expensive 2006 Keith Rowley precedent had established the requirement that a minister referred to the DPP by the Integrity Commission should be so notified, well ahead of the media.

By Thursday, Mr Roberts had won a solo turn under the post-Cabinet spotlight. His exultant performance recalled his radio talk show days, before declaration of his own political interest. Contrary to reports accepted as genuine, his own name had not been among whatever had been referred to the DPP. So the Integrity Commission's Registrar had confirmed in a letter.

Mr Roberts announced plans to sue all who had reported or commented on the basis of a story that could not be substantiated. Investigation, presumptive basis of the reporting, had failed.

The story, including the sidebar conflict with the COP chairman, was too good not to run with. It may prove a costly example of "narrative fulfillment", in pursuit of which the media, lacking the equivalent of White Body Suits, opt for a story just too close to what they are inclined to believe.