GEORGE FLOYD’S killing has triggered debate over the extent and manner in which race plays a role in the exercise of police power locally.
While ethnicity is undoubtedly a factor in the composition of our post-colonial institutions, including the Police Service, the matter of assessing the appropriate bounds of police conduct is far from skin deep.
As protesters of all complexions all over the world have demonstrated in the days since Mr Floyd’s killing by police, abuse of power anywhere is abuse of power everywhere.
It is understandable why Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith has pushed against any comparison. For our situation is far more complex.
But the CoP is off the mark if he feels the current state of the service somehow makes race completely irrelevant. If there are no white officers in TT’s Police Service, the reasons for that also include class factors.
It is certainly also tied to a colonial history that shaped the composition of the local police.
One need only consider Capt Arthur Baker’s unrelenting attempts to suppress Canboulay – attempts which personified white British colonial rule – to understand the optics of the modern service.
That service was also shaped by the age-old divide-and-rule tactic of colonial overlords.
Even if we could, in theory, put aside race, there remains the uncomfortable matter of the frequency of police killings in this country.
In the CoP’s assessment, these killings all involve criminals, often armed, who have endangered his officers.
Shooting at the police cannot be condoned. But by the same token, police have a duty to act with proportionate force: to use their training to disarm, not kill.
Further, these cases often feature drastically conflicting accounts from eyewitnesses. They demand full investigations, not unilateral decrees from someone who is not a disinterested arbiter.
Perhaps the attention paid to these issues will deepen consideration of the ways the criminal justice system and the system of police oversight have, or have not, dealt with instances of police killings.
Does the system really hold officers to account? Is the Police Complaints Authority effective? Does the Police Service Commission have a role to play? Has the introduction of body cameras made a difference? Can that technology be better used, play a greater role in protecting cops and civilians alike?
Or are we to accept all police killings as mere seven-day wonders?
Criminologists such as Prof Ramesh Deosaran and researchers like Prof Selwyn Ryan have long posited or examined links between young males of African descent in vulnerable communities and crime. Prof Ryan’s 2011 report on crime found “Afro-Trinidadians…disproportionately involved.” Also, “Afro-Trinidadians were identified as victims of shootings at a disproportionate rate based on police data.”
Has this changed?
We hold no brief for anyone seeking to undermine police authority.
But it is myopic to deny the intersection between abuse of power and race, even in our society.