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Arrested Development

By Terry Joseph
July 02, 2004

IT'S NOT that the police service never enjoyed this much attention, nor are calls for reform original and, believe it or not, at least one piece of proposed law enforcement legislation evoked more intense public discussion than Government's recent attempt; achieving that degree of interaction without a contentious advertising blitz.

More than 15 years ago, then Attorney General Selwyn Richardson proposed legislation that would ban outright persons 70 years and older from driving motor vehicles. At first utterance, a deafening public response sprang up.

When it peaked, we learnt from the source that he "was only joking".

By his own admission, the prank was simply a ruse borrowed from his counterpart in the Indian Government (he had recently returned from a meeting of Commonwealth Parliamentarians) to raise public awareness of what transpired in the Red House. It worked without paid advertising. Everyone said "no" to the "proposed legislation".

The same Richardson, later seeking to bring attention to abuse of vehicles by police officers, said they were "driving squad cars without oil or water," implying constables were less than vigilant about engine lubrication or coolants any by such negligence destroying cars bought with taxpayers' funds. Instead of eliciting the expected empathetic outcry, the people concluded it was another "joke". He paid dearly for that one, although his intention was equally pure in trying to make us aware of the slide.

Nor is the reform platform new. In fact, the police service has undergone a series of major "makeovers" since the late 18th century, when the Illustrious Cabildo introduced law enforcement with a six-man force stationed at St. Joseph, a squad whose work was defined by an influx of criminals from neighbouring islands, runaway slaves and AWOL soldiers and sailors.

British conquest of Spain brought us Colonel Thomas Picton who, concurrent with his good works was a barbarian, dealing summarily, employing deportation, public hangings, decapitations and the gory display of body parts in public squares as methods of dissuasion. He initiated conscription of free blacks that, in the social configuration of the day, devalued the police image.

In the book History of the Irish in Trinidad, Fr. Anthony de Verteuil reflects a widely held view of 19th century police, saying the force was considered "not as an essential service but a form of punishment." More than 100 years later and after much reform, when former Commissioner Eustace Bernard first enlisted in 1934, he still found, as his memoirs indicate: "the policeman's status, if he had one, was low in-deed."

In the long interim, there were a number of management maneouvres as well.

In 1862 plainclothes detectives were introduced and five years later, a handful of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were imported, all of which, authorities thought, would boost policing quality. Eighteen hundred and eighty four (1884) marked the arrival of the infamous Inspector Commandant Baker, on whose watch the Hosay and Canboulay massacres took place, both describes as "riots" in a time when the term "excessive force" had no place in reportage of police work.

The confusion of line authority and political clout has been with us for some time, as evidenced by the bizarre incident in which then Minister of Home Affairs, Dr. Patrick Solomin, reportedly ordered the release of a relative from a police station cell. And this was long before any of the current anxiety about government abuse, which Opposition MPs seem to think only now possible if the proposed Police Reform Bills become law.

More reform came in the wake of 1970's civil disturbances, when a kinder, gentler police service replaced "the force" that featured legends like motorcycle cops "Lot" and "Spy Smasher" and formidable officers walking the beat. Even the most nefarious criminals feared Sergeant Tobias and Corporal Charlie Stewart, whose awesome nickname was "Elephant Walk".

The next wave of reformists agreed that diminished respect resulted partly from having officers work in short pants, so we hastily approved a number of cosmetic "up-grades," hoping to restore lost deference, even as metropolitan societies discovered the merits of less restrictive uniforms."

In fact, we created a cadre of "saga-boy" constables instead, with shirt collars starched stiff, not wanting to sweat on the job. We replaced their bicycles with air-conditioned cars, facilitating free rides for girlfriends but with wound-up windows, made it more difficult to hear desperate cries of "Help! Police! In the latter day, mobile phones allow courting while on duty. And don't get me started on the topic of calling a police station for assistance.

So whether the Police Service Commission has dutifully discharged its responsibilities, the proposed management authority will expedite disciplinary processes or the Commissioner himself is given more "teeth" are hardly the immediate anxieties for us average law-abiding citizens.

Basic adjustments like computers in police vehicles and the outlawing of privately manufactured number-plates, which facilitate car stealing and get-away are but two of the pragmatic measures we should be demanding government implement immediately, rather than engaging in endless candlelight vigils and national days of prayer, off-loading on God the onus for reducing crime, when solutions are readily available at ground level.

Development of a proper police force, clearly on hold for decades, now requires a host of initiative simultaneously applied. Technology, psychology and common sense was always a much more viable combination and one decidedly easier to come by than consensus in the chambers of Parliament.

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