POLICE Commissioner Gary Griffith is unlikely to remain persuaded that, in giving vent to his well-known outspokenness, he should forbear issuing stern reflections on performance of the courts.
The Commissioner’s disapproving eyes were caught by a case in which an arms-and-ammunition possession convict appeared to benefit from single-minded judicial measure of on-the-one-hand against on-the-other-hand.
In the event, 18 months’ jail with hard labour for possession of a gun, and nine months’ for possession of ammunition were judicially assessed as fitting punishment for yet another eyebrow-raising offence. “This person will be out in just over a year, and back on the street,” the CoP said. He frowned upon that judicially enabled outcome as “not good enough”.
Here was a concerned non-lawyer’s reckoning that the court, so far from being moved to action against rampant gun-bearing criminality, might have been narrowing its attention to just fine points of law. Miscreants, armed with the means to procure their fees, have been enabled to retain sharp defence lawyers capable of outdoing the presumably less well-provisioned prosecutors. It made for a picture all too familiar to observers, likely to nod or cheer as the top law enforcer shows up as sharing their frustration.
Stung by such a measure of performance, the judiciary felt obliged to respond. A statement affirmed that judges, masters and magistrates count as unreliable allies in the war on crime. People who expect otherwise are warned that the courts, representing one “agency” within the criminal justice system, shrug off any public expectation of their working “as a partner in the strict sense of the word. (They) must be neutral and sometimes (are) unable to do what the other agencies would like (them) to do.” Too bad, Mr Commissioner. If you had expected from the courts any knee-jerk falling in line with any national mobilisation against crime, think again. No, judicial officers will not always get it right. And, yes, they too can benefit from “training and development”. The CoP, and those with whom related frustration resonates, must swallow hard as courthouse disappointments occur.
Within that dark underworld, whose supply networks tunnel throughout Trinidad and Tobago, guns and bullets remain in plentiful supply, alongside electronic communication capacity. Commissioner Griffith reports that 83 per cent of T&T’s ever-increasing murders are committed with guns illegally possessed. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system, with the courts ostensibly on-side, is unable to speak with one voice and to act accordingly.
The judiciary’s profile of the criminal justice system excludes the prisons. Within whose walls are housed, supposedly as a final resting place, those found by the courts to have run afoul of criminal law. At this terminal station of the system, criminal resourcefulness defeats official management and watchfulness. The association representing officers, often imagined to be sleeping on the job, or worse, self-righteously condemns the judicial system, immediate source of the overburden of incorrigibles.
Escapes from high-walled holding centres, even those called “maximum security”, are regularly accomplished. Inmates who forego the escape routes thrive on the ready in-house circulation of “contraband”, that also facilitates contact with outside collaborators. Prisoners are thereby empowered to “call shots” on targets beyond the walls, and even to exact vengeance on enemy officers on their way home.
If investigated, comprehensively or at all, the 2015 breakout and shoot-out from the Port of Spain prison remains a matter of mystery. How contraband, in the form of handgun and hand grenade, got into the hands of desperate and murderous inmates remains to be explained. But those inmates shot and terrorised their way onto Frederick Street, killing a police officer, in an ill-fated scramble toward what became short-lived freedom.
That episode should have worked as a learnable moment for the government and opposition legislators who amended the criminal laws, and for CoP Griffith who pushed for that. Their well-meaning, but thoughtless, purpose aimed to extend the period of (supposedly secure) imprisonment without pre-trial bail for likely malefactors accused of illegally possessing guns. But T&T prisons don’t realistically qualify as any safe haven, serving to prevent robbers, shooters and killers from getting “back on the street”, as the CoP put it. By last week’s murder number 331 for 2019, just about matching the year-to-date figure for 2018, the Parliament, State officialdom, including police, and the courts should be recognised as having given crime fighting their collective best shot.
Enter now the T&T Citizens’ Alliance Against Crime. This high-profile, high-brow emergence self-identifies as an organisation unbeholden to the T&T Treasury, bidding to make a difference by deploying against crime qualified resources of foreign expertise.
Inside the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been under fire by President Trump for alleged political interference. With open support from the Police Association, former FBI Special Agent Robert Clark, parachuted into high rank, will lend his crime-fighting capacities to boost the spent force that is the T&T Police. And, hopefully, CoP Griffith may find less time or need to rebuke the courts.