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The price of Police Brutality

Sunday Express - May 20, 2001
By Raffique Shah

POLICE brutality is nothing new to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service. It has always existed, although mercifully for us, the officers who engage in such gross misconduct are few in numbers. Last week, Justice Prakash Moosai freed a murder accused because evidence showed that when he was arrested for allegedly murdering his grandfather three years after the fact, he was handcuffed and denied food and water for eight days, according to one newspaper report. The matter did not reach the trial stage, so we shall never know if the accused was guilty, or if the real murderer is walking free out there.

One day earlier, a young girl was featured in the news barely able to walk and wearing a neck brace: she claimed to have been badly beaten a policeman, who in turn charged her with resisting arrest. The police said she received injuries "while resisting arrest". And over the past few months, we have had a number of judgements against the police for wrongful arrests and/or assault, with substantial financial awards being made to the victims. In every instance where such awards are made, the money comes from the public coffers-meaning that taxpayers have to foot the bills for the boorish behaviour of a few rogue policemen.

There are two issues here that ought to be of concern to the public. Firstly, rogue cops have cost taxpayers millions of dollars over the years (and harmed or murdered numerous other citizens, most such cases not reaching the courts). But there is little evidence to show that the deviant cops were dealt with internally, or that they were made to face the courts for abusing their powers. In 90 per cent of these cases the policemen went beyond what could be considered "reasonable force" to subdue suspects. That meant that they broke their own code of conduct, hence they should have been hauled before the Commissioner of Police, kicked out of the service-and have charges slapped against them.

But that hardly ever happens. Instead, we see many policemen who routinely abuse their powers being promoted rather than kicked out, some of them to the highest ranks in the service. In other words, the message seems to be this: do whatever you will, we shall protect and promote you! This attitude among public officers (yes, it includes others who hold key positions, abuse their offices, and end up costing the State huge sums of money) is: "Hey, I can do to you what the hell I want, nothing will happen to me!" And when the victims or those who know of the incidents see what's happening, they swear that "official crime" pays.

I am often accused of being a "Burroughs basher", but I stand by what I accuse the late Commissioner of because I know of numerous instances in which he used undue force or simply killed hapless persons because "dead men tell no tales". I shall refer to one incident that took place during the early 1970s, when joint police-army patrols were hunting the young men and women who belonged to NUFF, a self-styled guerilla movement. It was in Fyzabad where the patrol was tipped off that some of the "guerillas" were hiding out.

From the first hand report I got, it seems that a few NUFF members were indeed hiding out in the forests beyond Fyzabad and they had sent two innocent teenagers, one of them a retarded boy, to buy food for them. When the boys were returning to deliver the goods, the police pounced on them (the army was there to lend support in the event of a firefight). Burroughs and his men began beating the two boys with everything at their disposal-kicks, cuffs, gun butts, pieces of wood. The boys were bawling for mercy and bleeding profusely from the wounds inflicted on them. The soldiers who accompanied the policemen were so disgusted by Burroughs' barbaric behaviour, they simply left him to his evil designs.

Burroughs, of course, went on to become Commissioner of Police. Many of those who aided and abetted his brutal approach to crime fighting retired much later with fat pensions (but, as karma would have it, they are suffering with multiple diseases). And "The Chief" himself was a sorry sight during the last five years or so of his life. But Burroughs only typified the misconduct that is not uncommon in the service. You put a pipsqueak in police uniform and the mutation is remarkable: suddenly, yesterday's "patsy" is transformed into a gun toting "badjohn".

Another pertinent question is this: why must we pay for their sins? Because the millions of dollars that have been awarded to the victims of police brutality could have been used to run youth camps and other schools-for-dropouts that, hopefully, would have lessened the number of young criminals who stalk the streets today. Instead, we are paying dearly for the service harbouring psychotics in its ranks, and worse, we, the public, condone their brutality on the misunderstanding that they are dealing with dangerous criminals. When they abuse you or your child, only then you understand the beasts in uniforms we are dealing with.

Let me repeat that the deviant cops I am pointing fingers at are a small minority in the service. Most policemen (and women) perform their duties within the bounds of the law and they are helpful to the communities they serve. In fact, after the recent Curepe junction vehicular massacre, I heard people unfairly blame officers of the Highway Patrol, who, from what I have noticed, have been doing a damn good job. The public also gets good service from the E-999 Rapid Response officers and those who belong to the Community Police. But these good officers have their names tarnished by the misconduct of a handful of their colleagues who are really criminals in uniform.

It is time that we put in place mechanisms that will punish deviant officers who abuse their powers, whereby they are made to pay the damages awarded to their victims, and they should be charged, and if necessary jailed, for bringing the service into disrepute. Following the recent report of rape and cover-up at the San Fernando station, Commissioner Hilton Guy is reported to have transferred certain officers. If they are guilty of complicity in that heinous crime that took place where citizens ought to feel safest, why transfer them? Lock them up! Fire them! But surely you don't saddle other communities with criminals in uniforms who will simply continue their crime sprees elsewhere. Enough is more than enough.

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