“[…] [Griffith’s] defence of the arresting units in this matter—without a proper independent investigation or indication of concern about the coroner’s report—with a complete disregard for the truth, is abominable. It is even more so as he bears the responsibility for setting up SORT, a team from which arrested the men and in whose custody they died …”
In the following Letter to the Editor, Khafra Kambon, of the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad & Tobago, calls for the removal of Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith following his response to the death of two suspects while in police custody:
The year 2021 opened in a disturbing manner for Trinidad and Tobago. Our society requires calm and competent leadership at every level as we face increasingly serious challenges.
These include deteriorating economic conditions, job losses, anxieties and social strains aggravated by Covid 19. Insecurities and psychological stress are compounded by rising rates of crime and, unfortunately, in some cases, the nature of the response to crime by those with the responsibility to protect and serve’.
According to newspaper reports of 21 February, an investigation is ongoing into the official response of an arm of the protective services, the Special Operations Response Team (SORT), to the kidnap and brutal murder of Andrea Bharatt who was abducted on 29 January 2021.
Bharatt’s fate came soon after the nation had been traumatised by the murder of Ashanti Riley, also very young, who was kidnapped on 29 November 2020. In this environment, it drew a massive public outpouring of grief and sympathy for the family, as well as nationwide rage.
People were crying out for justice. Some were even willing to accept incredulous official explanations when arrested suspects, Andrew Morris and Joel Belcon, met horrendous deaths in the custody of SORT.
But the truth about their deaths caught up with the lies told to the public. Official statements that were in conflict with widely publicised scientific evidence provided by pathologist Professor Hubert Daisely. His report detailed multiple blunt force injuries to the skulls, bodies, ribs and other bones, hearts and other vital organs of both men.
In the case of Morris, the official reports were further debunked by a video that surfaced. Several voices challenged the official narrative, including voices of concerned individuals, journalists, the Law Association and the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church.
In raising its voice, the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad & Tobago calls on citizens to join in demands for action, beginning with the removal of Gary Griffith as commissioner of police.
His defence of the arresting units in this matter—without a proper independent investigation or indication of concern about the coroner’s report—with a complete disregard for the truth, is abominable. It is even more so as he bears the responsibility for setting up SORT, a team from which arrested the men and in whose custody they died.
The CoP is comfortable telling stories about how the heavily armed SORT officers, with specialised military training, were simply defending themselves against unarmed individuals, each one alone against a team of them (was it 22 to 1?).
But citizens cannot afford to be comfortable. It should be clear from this outrage and the defence of it that Griffith’s continuation in office will drag the country further down a dangerous path.
We also call for a thorough assessment of SORT, including its role in the current investigation of the murder of Ms Bharatt. The assessment is recommended with a view to retraining and restructuring or disbanding the unit.
Part of the Gary Griffith legacy, which has to be exorcised, is his popularisation of the use of the term ‘cockroaches’ to define certain classes of our citizens, invariably those who are African and poor.
This desensitises important categories of officials when they deal with those whose appearance and material circumstances fit the stereotypical image. It also detracts from public concern for the lives and livelihoods of those defamed by those images, putting them at greater risk of being killed by the military forces and generally strengthens racial stereotyping and divisiveness.
We urge all citizens to recognise the role played by such terms in the dehumanisation of the ‘other’ through language in the worst mass crimes in modern history, including genocides in Nazi Germany and Rwanda.
United Nations officials constantly warn against this abuse of language, and ‘cockroaches’ is one of the terms specifically condemned. We even saw it featuring in vulgar, racist commentary in Trinidad and Tobago after the 2020 election.
Both in the public education and the formal education systems, officials and other influencers need to sensitise our people generally about the need to see each other as human, regardless of class or ethnicity, for us to develop positive sensibilities to shape the ways in which we interact with each other.
We have to allow this tragic episode to be a warning to the public of the dangers we all face when the persons we depend on to protect us feel empowered to become judges, jury and executioners.
We will not have a civilised society if those responsible for enforcing the law, with the special means at their disposal to do so, feel empowered to inflict on suspected persons, punishments of any magnitude that would satisfy their own emotional responses to an act, even to the point of inflicting death. It would be worse if they were allowed to do this with impunity.
We need to reflect on this at a time when most citizens feel threatened by escalating crime, and we may feel urges for revenge against those who offend our deepest instincts by crimes as brutish as those committed against Ashanti and Andrea.
But we must ensure proper investigation, scientific evidence and processes of a properly constituted judicial system to determine innocence or guilt and appropriate punishments.
We cannot allow emotions to drag us down a precipitous incline to a police state where the crimes committed by demented civilians today may pale in comparison to the terrors of officially sanctioned violence and murders without redress tomorrow.