“[…] It is well documented that the history of policing in Trinidad and Tobago has been characterised as bearing the undesirable feature of paramilitarism… Joan Mars, Guyanese sociologist and policing scholar, when commenting on policing during the colonial times argued that this model of policing was characterised by:
“An emphasis on control and coercion rather than serving as the primary function; the legitimisation of police behaviour, however reprehensible, by the executive and judiciary; and the indiscriminate resort to violence—that is, the use of deadly force as a means of social control and especially crowd control…”
The following guest column on Trinidad and Tobago policing and the term of Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith was submitted to Wired868 by Dr Keron King, who is a criminologist and senior lecturer in Criminal Justice at COSTAATT:
When one understands the history of policing in Trinidad and Tobago, we have no choice but to demand a more radical approach to its leadership.
It is well documented that the history of policing in Trinidad and Tobago has been characterised as bearing the undesirable feature of paramilitarism.
This is largely because Britain’s task, as coloniser, was to impose ‘alien law’ onto the ‘indigenous population’ of her colonies (Jefferies, 1952, p 25).
Sir Charles Jefferies, the deputy under-secretary of state for the colonies, stated in his 1952 book—aptly titled The Colonial Police—that Britain had a different role for the police in the colonies.
He explained that ‘in such conditions the function of the police [was] closer to that of the Roman than to that of the Anglo-Saxon tradition…’ (Jefferies, 1952, p 25; emphasis mine).
Nineteenth-century policing emphasised excessive force and arbitrary and unjust attempts at social control of a subjugated population.
This approach, as opposed to the Peelian model (the model used in London), was thought to be more effective to preserve social order in the ‘period of social and economic readjustment’ that followed the abolition of slavery in 1834 (Jefferies, 1952, p 27).
Joan Mars, Guyanese sociologist and policing scholar, when commenting on policing during the colonial times argued that this model of policing was characterised by:
- an emphasis on control and coercion rather than serving as the primary function;
- the legitimisation of police behaviour, however reprehensible, by the executive and judiciary; and
- the indiscriminate resort to violence—that is, the use of deadly force as a means of social control and especially crowd control.
Therefore, against this backdrop, I would argue that any leadership strategy to policing that doesn’t have as its main goal the decolonising of the police has clearly missed the mark.
It is no secret that there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the appointment, tenure and now re-appointment of the commissioner of police. And to be honest it is difficult to keep up with the various twists and turns of this never-ending saga.
However, I thought it would be beneficial to reflect on policing and police leadership within the context I just presented.
We should start by making the point that Gary Griffith is the fourth commissioner to hold this office (I am including Acting Commissioner Stephen Williams) since what I would call the police reform bills of the mid-2000s.
In 2006-2007 via bi-partisan support, the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago passed a slew of legislation that, among other things, increased the power of the commissioner of police, redesigned the role of the Police Service Commission (PSC) and created a supposedly stronger Police Complaints Authority (PCA).
This coincided with other recommendations from a George Mason University consultant team led by US-based criminologist Stephen Mastrofski. In those days, we spoke about the new day of policing, we spoke about model police stations. All of this was dubbed the Policing for People Initiative.
I would argue that this period was the most noteworthy and comprehensive attempt at police reform this nation has ever undergone.
I make this point because it is important to see Commissioner Griffith’s tenure in both the historical colonial context of policing and also in the recent context of police reform. I believe it is from these vantage points we can and should examine his, his executive and the entire agency’s performance.
The challenge, however, with evaluating any commissioner and/or police organisation’s performance is the scarcity of relevant data. The data that is easily accessible is crime and arrest data but other types of data, such as the evaluation data for his many initiatives—for instance, the Emergency Response Patrol (ERP)—are much harder to come by.
Early in Griffith’s tenure, the TTPS launched a new and improved response unit that would be paired with a revamped Emergency Call Centre. I remember at the time thinking this: how is this different from the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) that was launched by his predecessor four years prior and also suffered from inaccessible evaluation data?
Without this evaluation data, one does not know if the squad cars kept their promise of responding in a ‘matter of seconds’; and if so, what was the impact of this on public safety.
The same can be said of Shot Spotter technology, the Gender-Based Violence Unit, the introduction of drones, dashboard cameras, body-worn cameras, the mobile app, the many consultations with the public and so many other initiatives that were reportedly added to the arsenal of our law enforcement agents.
The director of the Cambridge Centre for Evidence Based Policing, Professor Lawrence Sherman, argues for a Triple-T strategy of policing: targeting, testing and tracking. In short, police organisations must target the harm they wish to address, test the agreed upon interventions, and track the performance of their operations.
As was said by New York-based justice philanthropist Walter Katz in the recently concluded American Society of Evidence Based Policing Conference: “What you don’t measure, you don’t know…”
And the underlying issue with the TTPS is that they rarely report outcome data for their initiatives.
Even worse, one wonders if anyone—whether the Police Service Commission, academics, the Office of Law Enforcement and Policy within the Ministry of National Security or even the Crime and Problem Analysis Branch of the TTPS—is evaluating the activities of the TTPS, using an evidence-based framework.
This type of evaluation and much more is needed from our top brass in law enforcement. Anything less is a throwback to colonial times.
Let us examine my decolonising of the police perspective and offer a roadmap of what that might look like. It is my view that the main tenets should be a commitment to democratic policing and an uncompromising belief in evidence-based approaches.
It is no secret that Griffith has a ‘war on crime’, ‘tough on crime’, ‘lock em up’ approach, which has found favour with quite a few citizens. Similarly, the PSC gave Griffith a very good appraisal.
And I would be the first to admit that I understand the allure of the idea that talking tough and waging war on crime and criminals would lead to crime reduction. But we know from criminal justice research that these hard-line policies do not work in the long run.
However, it is not my intention to debunk this approach here—readers are encouraged to read more on this topic.
In a 2009 article, Nathan Pino, sociologist and co-author of Democratic Policing in Transitional and Developing Countries, argued for developing democratic policing in the Caribbean as an alternative to war on crime approaches.
He suggested that: ‘policing policies should be dictated by the country affected and its people… the people need to be equitably involved in policymaking; local structures and capacities ought to be strengthened by enhancing social and human capital; and the goal of sustainability must always be present, keeping long term goals in mind’. (emphasis mine)
Democratic policing in essence is derived from democratic values and its officers, to quote Pino, ‘will understand that their authority comes from the citizenry, they would use minimum amounts of force, be ethical and intolerant of extra-legal punishment and police misconduct, fight for justice rather than crime, seek to prevent crime rather than merely respond to it, and seek high degrees of accountability for individual and organisational activity. The police would join in the dialogue with citizens and other actors on these issues.’
This police department would recognise that mere law enforcement can no longer be justified as the basis for policing. For they would appreciate how colonial-era laws have created an intersection with police operations and the routine activities of the poor.
They would refrain from name-calling and issuing threats and, instead, be committed to working with all stakeholders to address the issues of citizen security and public safety. And they would seek to be held accountable by them.
For, whether we like it or not, the police must treat all citizens with respect and be responsive to their needs. Many are now in agreement that it is the only way to effectively control crime.
Pino argues and I concur that ‘policing can be a lead element in developing the type of social relationships that are foundations for democratic principles in communities whose efficacy has been shattered’.
This, however, requires not mere tinkering and renaming of units, or the issuing of new uniforms and technology products or a pre-test post-test examination of crime statistics every six months but a radical vision for a decolonial approach to policing.
It may very well call for the abolition of the TTPS as we know it.
I end with Pino’s call: ‘We want to develop a model of policing that can support political, social and economic development, the promotion of civil society and human rights and the development of social capital.’
This, in my view, is the first step towards decolonising the police and any leader whose plans simply maintain the colonial status quo is missing the mark.
- Ethnic Diversity and Police Community Relations in Guyana – Joan Mars
- Democratic Policing in Transitional and Developing Countries – Edited By Michael D. Wiatrowski, Nathan Pino
- Developing Democratic Policing in the Caribbean: The case of Trinidad and Tobago – Nathan Pino
- Jeffries, C. (1952). The colonial police. London: Parrish.
- The Rise of Evidence Based Policing:Targeting, Testing and Tracking – Lawrence Sherman
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