As a child, I learned a saying, ‘Don’t wait until night comes to light a candle to see what you could see in the day’!
By this, my mother meant, ‘Don’t wait for a problem to come upon you when it could have been prevented long beforehand’.
As a purveyor of Tobago witticisms, undoubtedly Dr Keith Rowley would have known this one. He mounted a tiger with his approval of the appointment of Mr Gary Griffith in 2018, and maybe he came to realise the gravity and potential fulfilment of John F Kennedy’s words:
“Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
Significantly, our Constitution, Chapter 1, enshrines fundamental human rights without discrimination. The oath sworn by the prime minister is to ‘uphold the Constitution and the law, that I will conscientiously, impartially and to the best of my ability discharge my duties… and do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection or ill-will’.
The one sworn by the commissioner of police under the Police Service Act is curious but noteworthy: ‘…will well and truly serve Trinidad and Tobago without favour or affection, malice or ill will, and… cause the peace to be kept and preserved in Trinidad and Tobago, and that I will prevent, to the utmost of my power, all offences against the same’.
It proceeds curiously to affirm that: ‘[…] and will not, without due authority in that behalf, in any manner whatsoever publish or communicate any facts or information being facts or expressions of opinion based on such facts that come to my knowledge by reason of my being the holder of such office’. (emphasis added)
The behaviour of our last commissioner of police, on this score, was largely excused, even as few lamented.
In the October 2018 shootout in Trou Macaque in which five young men lost their lives, attorney Wayne Sturge warned us: “… the municipal courts exist for a reason, regardless of why we think the way we think about people we describe as ‘good boys’. A civilised country which has respect for the rule of law and the sacrosanct nature of human life will demand better.
“The penalty for most of the crimes these shooting victims are suspected of, even where they are found guilty, is not death, and an extrajudicial killing that cannot be justified is not merely a sentence of death for one of Gary’s cockroaches; it is state-sponsored murder done with the acquiescence of the taxpayers.”
But Dr Rowley gave the benefit of the doubt to the Police: “The loss of any citizen’s life, through violence, is particularly traumatic for any family and community where it occurs. This emotion is multiplied manyfold when young men arm themselves and engage law enforcement officers.
“This misguided activity always has the potential to end in unspeakable tragedy for all involved, officers and civilians.”
Emboldened by this, Mr Griffith enunciated his ‘one shot, one kill’ policy—the GG-dubbed ‘Super Granny’s’ pleas notwithstanding.
The story came to bump in June 2019, when Naomi Nelson was killed with one bullet. The Commissioner was defiant about the incident, complete with a hotly disputed map. He then told the father it would take up to six years to finalise the ballistics test.
The father’s response? “We know to ourselves what happened.”
Mr David West, the Police Complaints Authority Director, wryly commented:
“What is concerning is when there are multiple victims from a police incident. I attribute it to officers going into areas where there are several persons around, and the narrative that somebody pulls a weapon, the police officers fire back in self-defence and multiple persons are shot.” (emphasis added.)
Dr Rowley’s position changed.
“There were some very serious allegations made to me here this evening as the MP about a particular officer or officers acting in a particular way which is not what we expect. We now have to determine the veracity of those statements, and if it turns out that is so, then there are ways of dealing with that within the laws of T&T.”
He was measured, but it was a shift.
By April 2020, there was a raid on young boys in Sea Lots. The Police reported that they could identify the boys who were taunting Mr Griffith through unprecedented technology.
Yet, they could not distinguish the young woman on ‘her private beach’; instead, they resorted to Facebook appeals.
This incident was followed by the arrest of some other youngsters in the sea close to Bayside Towers.
In June 2020, three Morvant men were killed by the Police. In this case, there was six-minute, 22-second footage that showed two of the men with their hands in the air surrendering when they were shot—a direct contradiction of the police account.
This incident triggered three days of widespread and united action across many communities. Fortunately, Second Caledonia is a PNM stronghold, and the situation was capped.
Yet, in the case of the Bayside Towers, there was quibbling about private and public spaces, a matter of misguided thinking based on the control of common areas in such complexes.
Mr Griffith was confronted by the Prime Minister, notwithstanding the mealymouthed excuses of the Attorney-General, on the grounds of fair law enforcement treatment on the public health regulations.
Gail Alexander (15 September 2020) reported that the Government would write to the Police Service Commission concerning Griffith’s statements. The T&T Guardian confirmed that the Commission was scheduled to meet on Griffith’s conduct.
We do not know the timing of the other prime ministerial letters. Still, the CoP’s interactions with the public became increasingly threatening and petty until he was dubbed the ‘Facebook Commissioner’.
The media challenged Messrs Griffith and Chandler’s account of that incident. That account is a must-read media prosecution of the Rowley case.
We under-value the role of the media in this entire affair. Do we get to ignore the compelling truths of Denyse Renne because she is a woman reporter, not a big sawatee? Reportedly, another journalist was blocked from communicating with the Commissioner because of this press conference. Is that acceptable?
Fascinatingly, Mr Griffith’s defence is to accuse others of playing race instead of using logic. This stance is unfortunate. An exchange between Dr Eric Williams and Dr Winston Mahabir illustrates the folly of ignoring the ground reality.
Dr Mahabir accused Dr Williams of believing that ‘the appeal of reason is powerful enough to dissolve prejudices’. Dr Williams eventually conceded: “The Indians are an entirely different problem. The political line for the society must be economic and political equality and cultural autonomy for any minority that wishes it.”
Dr Bridget Brereton, our esteemed historian, speaks about all the races engaging in ‘competitive victimhood’. Logic includes an assessment of our country’s racial make-up and the competition that ensues.
The business community’s support of Mr Griffith’s retention of office is captivating in this context since it belies the defence.
Exercised in a self-serving manner, without care for others, power corrupts and corrodes the quality of life enjoyed. Is it that our blood lust is justified because the victims of the police killings are poor people? Is it acceptable to release criminal records to justify actions, as in the case of Andrew Morris?
Is that tipping the scales of justice? What does the harassment of citizens on Facebook by the then Police Commissioner mean?
In this context, the Privy Council’s remarks in the Endell Thomas case are chilling:
‘In the case of an armed police force with the potentiality for harassment that such a force possesses, the power of summary dismissal raises the prospect of converting it into what in effect might function as a private army of the political party that had obtained a majority of the seats in Parliament at the last election.
‘Their Lordships do not suggest that there is any likelihood of any of these extreme consequences occurring in Trinidad and Tobago.’
Who was building a private army to harass whom? Was Dr Rowley taking in front to prevent a private army? Or was Dr Rowley piqued by lesser personal considerations?
The Service Commission acted in its own isolated perspective in its reputed grading of the performance of the Commissioner. It apparently ignored the Police Complaints Authority that has discharged its responsibilities objectively and impartially with genuine independence and oversight.
One does not know beyond Facebook survey invitations how the public opinion was gleaned. (We already know that the Facebook group supportive of Gary Griffith is second only to Dr Rowley’s!)
We do not know whether the Auditor-General had been asked to give input concerning the collection and use of the ISOS funds.
Finally, in 1965, Williams noted: “A government which is responsible for the security of the nation must necessarily act on information available to it, even though that information is not of a nature which in the public interest can be made public, and it cannot possibly be expected to be influenced by sentimentality.” (The Reality of Independence, 1965.)
Some may disagree. But the stirrings of June 2020 may look like a tea party when the economic woes of 2022 kick in, should a repressive Police Commissioner be in place.