Instead of celebrating the birthday of father-of-five Richard Sandy, his family was on Monday preparing for his funeral. Whatever the circumstances, too many prison officers are dying. All murders are abhorrent, but the continued perception that members of our law enforcement corps are especially vulnerable to attack is a clear and present danger to the welfare of the State.
According to initial reports, Sandy was doing what every officer of the law is entitled to do: living his life. He attended a birthday lime in his honour. Yet, at this event, an assailant confronted Sandy’s friend. Sandy — demonstrating the best qualities of a citizen and an officer of the law — sought to provide conciliation. He paid for his efforts with a bullet to the leg and died later at hospital. All efforts must be made to bring the perpetrator to justice in this matter. But there also needs to be a serious look at the measures in place to protect the women and men who administer the criminal justice system.
Tuesday’s silent protest by members of the Prison Officers Association led by president Ceron Richards was an understandable reaction to the situation. It served, in a way that was not disruptive, to raise awareness of some startling statistics.
According to Richards, over 20 prison officers have been killed over the last two decades. In five years, over eight officers were shot and five murdered. TT has the highest rate of law enforcement officer killings per capita in the Commonwealth Caribbean. If these statistics are true, the question is why.
But one murder alone is a serious cause for concern. Every act of violence perpetuated on a member of the law enforcement apparatus sends a chill effect across the nation. Prison officers are particularly susceptible. They have to work within confined spaces at close proximity to criminals and people on remand. Recent breaches of security at jails demonstrate how permeable cell walls are. The killings say one thing: no officer is really safe, whether inside or outside jailhouses. How is a prison officer to go about his or her duty on a daily basis in such circumstances? How can such an officer be called upon to trust in their position of authority within the penal system?
Worsening the situation is the perception of corruption within prison staff. The jailbreak of 2015 and the subsequent disclosure of unspecified “treachery” within the ranks has done irreparable damage. That the disciplinary system is yet to make headway in relation to that incident is deeply distressing.
So the experience of prison officers comes down to a kind of double assault. They must fend off prisoners both inside and outside jail. And they must also be weary of potential bad apples within their ranks. This is simply insufferable.
The solution, however, is not as clear as Richards might believe. While legislation modelled after the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of the US might be useful, it is not necessarily appropriate when balanced with the overall risks. Such legislation would empower current and retired officers to carry guns in certain circumstances. But placing more firearms into the hands of officers can potentially endanger the public and also add to the trove of illicit guns. The authorities should be free to adopt a nuanced but regulated approach to the question of firearms possession. What certainly can be said is there are more rudimentary things that need to be done.
Prison officers have to be afforded an appropriate level of training and support to enable them to manage the risks they face. In addition to the enforcement of disciplinary measures, more stringent guidelines should be issued to officers. And the breaches which allow criminals to attack officers — such as the availability of unlicensed firearms — have to be sealed.
For now, we express condolences to Sandy’s family. And we warn: unless urgent action is taken, more and more unsung heroes of the law enforcement apparatus will face unacceptable risks.