Police abuse has been at the forefront of local and international news for the past 12 months. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, set off weeks of protests in the United States and around the world, putting focus on many other cases of police brutality in the US which had previously gone largely unnoticed.
The deaths of Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris while in the care and custody of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service have not elicited a similar response. What will be the catalyst for change in T&T? The criminal justice system is in shambles, and a large part of the problem is a lack of accountability of members of the Police Service.
How do we make police officers accountable? We can start by properly investigating allegations of abuse made against them. There have been calls to give the Police Complaints Authority greater power to prosecute offences. If sufficient resources follow, this could result in real change.
But more needs to be done, urgently. Last year I was part of a group of concerned citizens who formed a non-profit organisation with a focus on criminal justice issues. Police reform was top of our list. We started by writing to the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Police, suggesting certain measures which could lead to greater police accountability.
In T&T the Police Service Regulations require all disciplinary hearings to be held in private. In other countries, laws have been changed to allow citizens to attend hearings and observe the disciplinary process (in the UK, for instance, this was changed in 2015). Our call to consider publication of disciplinary records and the opening up of police disciplinary hearings to the public in T&T has not been met with a response.
In February of this year, our organisation sought information from the AG’s Ministry (which includes the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and Solicitor General’s Office) on the number of police officers who were reported to the Commissioner of Police for investigation of misconduct from 2010 to present. The answer was that the AG’s Ministry had no record of any such report to the COP. Not one.
What this means is that lawyers in the AG’s Ministry who are involved in these cases are not required, by any law or policy, to report the misconduct to the COP for investigation.
There is another concern relating to matters which are settled by the AG’s Office. Often a claim is filed which makes serious allegations of misconduct against a police officer, but because of overwhelming evidence against the officer, the State “settles” the matter, meaning it pays out compensation to the victim. In these cases, once again, the attorney acting for the State is not obligated to bring the alleged misconduct to the attention of the Commissioner of Police.
The information flow is just as stunted in the opposite direction, with the Commissioner of Police having no duty in law to share with the AG’s Ministry, as a matter of course, disciplinary findings against police officers. This is despite the fact that these findings may be relevant to criminal trials or civil cases in which the police officer is involved.
In short, therefore, there is a lack of communication between the various State institutions, which leads to officers escaping any type of accountability, even where courts have made findings against them, or when taxpayers’ money has been used to pay out significant compensation.
There are simple measures that can be put in place to close these gaps. Policies need to be developed and implemented which ensure allegations of serious police abuse are reported by all other State institutions to the Commissioner of Police. Once the COP has done his work and a finding of misconduct has been made by him, that information needs to be shared, at the very least, with other State agencies such as the DPP’s office and the Solicitor General’s office.
The non-appearance of police complainants in court has plagued the criminal justice system for decades. In order to assess the scope of the problem we sent an official request for information to the Judiciary, asking for details on matters dismissed since 2015 for “want of prosecution”—a term which essentially means lack of readiness. Information was provided for two district courts only (San Fernando and Tobago), but since the other courts are not computerised, the Judiciary claims that the information for those courts “cannot be easily gathered”. We are awaiting a response from the Commissioner of Police on a similar request.
Is the non-appearance of a police officer at a criminal trial, leading to its collapse, not important enough that a proper record should be kept and easily accessible?
The purpose of these proposed reforms is not to punish police officers, or make their job more difficult. To the contrary, achieving accountability will in the long term improve relations with the citizenry, making policing easier. The vast majority of our police officers who are honest and hard-working will then see their efforts rewarded, in a system that is fair and transparent.
We will surely not find our way out of this mess unless we do things differently.
—Lee Merry is an attorney
and executive director of
the High Tide Project.