The collapse of the Anti-Gang (Amendment) Bill, 2020, seeking to extend the Anti-Gang Act 2018 for another 30 months was not unexpected.
In contrast to March 2018 when the Government laid the initial bill, Friday’s parliamentary debate attracted little interest from the public whose outrage had been decisive in pushing the Opposition United National Congress into giving the required special three-fifths’ support needed for its passage.
After licking its wounds, the Government must ask itself whether the collapse of the bill was the result of its failure to sensitise and win public support for extending the anti-gang law which expires in a week’s time, or whether the public has simply lost confidence in the usefulness of anti-gang legislation in the fight against crime. This bill was always going to be a hard sell, given the general lack of success of anti-gang laws as a policing tool.
First introduced by the People’s Partnership government in 2011 and later resurrected by the PNM administration in 2018, anti-gang legislation gives the Police Service extraordinary powers to combat the scourge of gangs. Through their MPs, the public agreed to temporarily surrender several basic constitutional rights to allow the police to prosecute and convict gangsters. In succession, the Partnership and PNM governments received public and parliamentary support by successfully arguing that a suspension of constitutional rights would allow the police to eradicate gang-related crime. Under the People’s Partnership government, almost all the cases filed under the Anti-Gang Act 2011 stemmed from the 2011 state of emergency, and were thrown out by the court. In the case of the PNM, there is equally little to show after two years. The law has simply not lived up to the hype to date.
It was simply not enough to argue, as Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi did, that gang activity had declined over the past two years with a reduction in the number of gangs from 211 to 129, and in gang memberships from 2,400 to 1,014. Without context and details, these are empty statistics.
Further, for the AG to cite arrests in gang-related murders as evidence of the act’s success means equally nothing in the context of existing laws against murder. The comment by Police Commissioner Gary Griffith that the Anti-Gang Act 2018 has been a major deterrent in reducing murders by over 115 this year compared to the same period last year is facile. The more likely cause is the Covid-19 regime of shutdowns and closed borders which have cut off the country from international drug-trafficking and organised crime networks to which T&T gangs are connected.
Notwithstanding the Government’s failure to develop a convincing case that the anti-gang legislation has been effective in the fight against crime, it could still have been supported by the Opposition, given the strong call by the Commissioner of Police and other law enforcement officials to leave it in place at this time as they struggle to bring the scourge of crime under control.