ON OCTOBER 25 in Laventille, the police shot dead five young males, two of them teenagers. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith was subsequently reported as saying that his officers, who were “on a basic patrol, were met by gunfire.” One officer was hit, but was saved by his bulletproof vest. Griffith went on:
“That is justification for us to fire, and we are not firing to say we can shoot them in the leg. It is one shot, one kill. If you fire at my officers, they are going to fire back, and they will fire based on the training they have, which is to kill. (T)his is based on self-defence.”
He added – although his previous comments suggested he had already reached a conclusion – that police action would be within the law, but that the matter would be “thoroughly investigated.”
And so it should, especially since relatives of some of the deceased people have been passionately accusing the police of lying, and of having in fact executed the victims in cold blood. I’m certain we can rely on the Police Complaints Authority to conduct an impartial inquiry.
Our population has been made jumpy by the rising level of violent crime, and it’s therefore no surprise that Griffith’s tough talk has won wide public support. But we should be careful.
In her Sunday Express column of October 28, Sophia Chote (who I suspect knows a bit more about the law than Griffith) had this to say:
“A suggestion by (Griffith) that an acceptable response for an officer who is shot at is to shoot to kill as opposed to shooting to disarm/disable and apprehend is legally wrong. The fact that these statements were made before a proper investigation has been concluded indicates a pre-judgement of the issue. The constitutional democracy in which we are still blessed to live does not give anyone a licence to kill.
“Armies are trained to kill, as are illegal death squads. Members of the TTPS may find themselves individually liable for actions taken outside of the law. They must remain cognizant of that fact and make their choices accordingly.”
I have myself spoken to several retired senior Defence Force and police officers about the “trained-to-kill” and “one shot-one kill” assertions. Without exception, they have debunked them. Yes, in a firefight someone might be killed, they said, but you don’t set out to kill, except in a war against a foreign enemy.
But what is the law under which Griffith thinks he is operating? The website policinglaw.info, which is managed by South Africa’s Pretoria University, states that “Trinidad and Tobago does not specifically regulate police use of force in national legislation” and calls on us to “enact legislation to govern police use of force, particularly firearms, that conforms with international standards.” Are these comments valid?
Michael Seales, the president of the Police Social and Welfare Association, was reported in the Express of October 30 as saying that Griffith’s comments were consistent with law enforcement policy. But what is this policy? Shoot to kill? Where is it set out? Who approved it? When? And Seales also said: “(W)e no longer have to worry about what our leader would say if there is a shooting and that shooting is in self-defence.”
That sounded like an unkind jab at Stephen Williams. But, I ask again, what is the law? What is the policy? May we please hear from our Attorney-General?
Among others, the AG may wish to speak with UWI Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine. She too has voiced words of caution, pointing out that the hardline approach, by itself, has not in other places brought the benefits intended. After decades of “crackdowns,” what is the situation today in Colombia? Brazil? El Salvador? Los Angeles?
Antoine has urged that, in addition, we take deeper issues into account, like long-term remedies for social ills. It’s what I’ve been saying.
Griffith means well, I’m sure, and he has a very difficult task. Our gunslingers don’t scare easily; they proliferate and retaliate. Other challenges abound. Dated technology. Rogue cops. Domestic violence. Short-tempered, finger-pointing citizens. Smartmen galore. He needs all the help he can get. But he must also help himself.
For a start, I suggest he re-visits, and adheres to, his early promise to talk less. When he does talk, he should watch his language – calling people “cockroaches” (which are mostly black, and considered vermin), and anticipating investigation results, sends the wrong message. He should choose a more measured, though firm and demonstrably legal, course of action.
And I recommend to the Government what I said in my previous article on this subject: follow a two-track policy. Laventilleans, Beethamites and Sea Lotsos are folks, too.