“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Milan Kundera, a Czech and French novelist, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979).
The book discusses how people tolerate the torture and suffering over which they have no control. These lessons apply to us as we navigate our surreal world.
We live in a world where bizarre, almost unbelievable, events mark our existence. Going back into history to regain control and perspective is always helpful.
On 1 February 2024, a viral clip from a Parliamentary committee on National Security caught the nation’s attention.
The questioning by Independent Senator Dr Paul Richards appeared to put the Police Commissioner in a poor light. Viewing the entire proceedings rather than depending on the short clip is necessary.
Most of our population now gets their news through social media outlets. Some journalists and trolls—“content creators”—operate a propaganda machine to bully and harass their objects. Unfortunately, anger, fear, and outrage (genuine or manufactured) are the currency of social media platforms.
Viewing the entire proceedings brought to mind a warning from former Senator Verna St Rose-Greaves. She was the first to ring a bell about what Jack Warner later called a “Cabal”.
In a 2012 Guardian interview with Dr Sheila Rampersad, she warned: “I listen to what is being said—and don’t be fooled: these are no off-the-cuff statements. They want the place to mash up. I’m seeing people pushing for fire.
“They want this place to explode, and I hope the country (is) smarter than that because there will be no winners… if a crisis should arise, it would provide them with the opportunity, and this is why I am pushing for her to stand up.
“Female leadership is not easy. I think the time has come for us to say and do something about it. This is not about a person alone; it is about a country. We cannot continue like this. It’s as if power is an aphrodisiac to many of these men.”
On 16 April 2023, Newsday reported that Dr Roodal Moonilal would consult with other members of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on National Security to call for a meeting with Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher to inquire about police officers switching off body cameras.
(The JSC has eight members: 5 PNM, 2 UNC, and 1 Independent).
This is not the first time that MP Moonilal questioned the use of body cameras by the Police Service.
“Where we are right now, where people are being killed in circumstances where there are legitimate questions about the conduct of police officers, a bodycam will not only tell you the police was wrong, a bodycam will also tell you the police was right.”
Body cameras have a long torturous history, stretching from July 2020 when Mr Gary Griffith claimed to have purchased 1,000 cameras initially. Another 1,500 were ordered in March 2021.
These body-cams were to be issued to front-line officers, including all officers in the since-disbanded Special Operations Response Team (SORT), the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), Guard and Emergency Branch (GEB), and task forces.
In July 2020, then-Commissioner Griffith asserted: “The reason I want to push for body cameras more than anyone is for when my police officers are wrongfully accused by the lady in the towel who makes the accusation because we do know they have bionic eyes that see through walls and around corners.”
None were in use when the Andrea Bharatt suspects died in custody in July 2021. The Police Complaints Authority found that while in custody the suspects, Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris, were “the subject of torture”, with two of the individuals being the subjects of acts of violence that led to their deaths.
ASP Mark Hernandez, who headed SORT then, was charged with misbehaviour in public office.
In June 2020, Griffith claimed: “Over 100 police vehicles are equipped with cameras that give real-time video footage sped back to the Operational Command Centre.”
By July 2022, Griffith rubbished a statement by Commissioner McDonald Jacob that the system lacked technological infrastructure:
“This is not a system where you have to have video feedback to a command centre. No other police service in the world has that. Such a project would essentially be a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
OMG! Are we living in the real world? Does the esteemed Committee member think the present Commissioner is the problem?
Then, there was the vexed problem of promotions. A JSC member was part of a legal team that contested a related matter and was actively pursuing other cases against the Commissioner. She did not recuse herself.
What are the rules that govern such conduct in our Parliament? The Chair aborted the questioning, citing that the matter was sub judice.
Did the JSC members consider why as many as 900 constables were due for promotion?
The answer is in another lawsuit. In December 2023, 109 police officers sued the Promotions Advisory Board, which is supposed to sit every three months. Some officers have been on the list since 2009!
Why did the JSC not want to understand why this process only began in March 2023?
The problem with wrong scores was at the heart of the 2021 Court proceedings involving the JSC member. Unfortunately, the same difficulty—how the scores can be bungled—was again a subject in the present debacle.
It was instructive to watch the handling of the responsible officer and compare it to that meted out to the Commissioner. The esteemed JSC questioner appeared ignorant of that history.
He, not MP Moonilal, was the one taking the strike combatively. His ramjaying has prompted some to question whether it was misogynistic. The bar has been raised for this woman, like Professor Claudine Gay, and has baked any imperfection into a fundamental flaw.
Commissioner Harewood-Christopher has said the only way to stop the surging murders and crime was to hit gang leaders in their pockets by dismantling their financial empires.
This conclusion is not different from that of her predecessor, Mr Griffith. Yet, the propaganda machine focuses on her statement about prayer and slams her urging to acknowledge the supernatural angle.
By September 2023, she noted a zero percent increase in the murder rate compared to a 10 percent increase for the same period the previous year. A JSC member brazenly scolded her for noting that success.
In January 2024, some further progress was made. Consider this nuanced exchange about crime targets and the headline employed.
The Police Service is targeting gangs, but will the Commissioner be encouraged or remain a target? The propaganda machine has turned the bureaucratic finer points into a political bomb.
This is not to excuse Commissioner Harewood–Christopher’s lack of preparation for the meeting. She must know that such hearings are designed to create sound bites for the news reports.
The questioners are not coming to the meeting to seek solutions but to set prosecutorial traps. Look at the verbatim report of the exchange between the Senator and the Commissioner over the television show:
Richards: Is there a particular mandate for the Beyond the Tape show? And I ask the question in the context that, very often, I hear utterances in that show that are in stark contradiction to what the police leadership is saying and it is very surprising to me.
So the police leadership says one thing about gangs, the show is saying ‘we giving the gangs a bligh’.
Is there a mandate for that show? And does the show take instruction and policy and public dissemination from the police leadership because every often I have heard contradictory information from the police leadership and from what I see on that show and I don’t know which one to believe.
Christopher: The show should be a replica of the thoughts and sentiments of the executive of the organisation.
Richards: Is that happening?
Christopher: There may be times when the presenter is a bit adverse to the thoughts of the organisation.
Richards: The presenter representing the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service on a national broadcast, very popular show, in uniform and you are telling us that he is adverse to what the leadership is saying? That is a shocking revelation.
The Commissioner needed to project empathy and not get stuck trying to be lawyerly in her responses. Preparation for such hearings usually should include ‘mock’ interviews and a review of footage of previous successful or disastrous hearings. Seemingly, no such preparation took place.
The nature of our policing trouble remains unresolved. There is no argument about that.
But we have “useful idiots”—naive persons who can be manipulated to advance a cause or political agenda—at work in Parliament. Woe is we!