Sunday 24th December, 2006

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When crimefighters take a break

Murder and robbery will clearly not take a break for Christmas, but maybe we can be allowed some gallows humour with which, as it were, to wash down reported episodes that are harder than ever to swallow.

Crime and the alleged police “response” are still part of the same story. In the New Year, this story is liable to change, as attitudes, especially in high-end, victim communities, harden in favour of adopting maybe vigilante self-defences.

There’s nothing funny about the experience of the Reg Potter, 65-year-old former oilman and critic of present energy policy, who was shot by intruders at his Glencoe residence.

Details of that potentially fatal robbery, including the beating of his wife and son, read like a cautionary tale.

In today’s T&T, people still hoping for relatively untroubled enjoyment of life and property must be taking pessimistic advice about what to do, beyond installing surveillance cameras.

“Almost every home up this hill has been attacked by bandits,” and some homes had been hit twice in three years, Mr Potter told the Guardian.

Western Division Insp Anthony Lezama assumed the posture of big-picture detachment from the perils of life in hilltop Glencoe.

In north-west Trinidad, he affirmed, the police have recorded no increase in robberies, but an increase in complaints by residents calling for patrols.

Having thus defined the problem and deemed it under control, the police may themselves be taking a Christmas break.

At Four Roads station last Monday, apart from the inspector in charge, just one officer turned up for work.

How many, I asked my source, make up the full strength at that station covering a heavily-populated Diego Martin area?

Four, came the reply, with a grim chuckle.

The crime insurgency remains full-blown, but effective police capacity remains at what looks like at best half-strength, with the flag of morale flying lower than half-mast.

Criminals know the reality from which the official line seeks to avert the eyes of the public.

From inspector on up to Cabinet Minister, the policy is to deny rather than to acknowledge that, when they’re needed most, the police are simply not there.

Years of failure to recruit and “pass out” officers are telling pitifully. Almost always, roads and highways remain unpoliced; stations are staffed by laughable handfuls of officers.

At Penal two weeks ago, when Marilyn Abdool called to report bandits actually kicking down her door, none of the two officers on duty could respond.

Weeks before that, as a “near-riot” broke out there, Vessigny Beachgoers cellphoned all the stations within reach.

Only two officers were holding the fort in each. To combat threatening anarchy, none could be spared.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Commissioner Trevor Paul told a Guardian reporter who asked about the short-staffed stations. “I will have to enquire.”

At the stations, junior officers are ready and willing to disclose they have neither the personnel nor the vehicles to do their work.

Up the khaki-clad ranks, what increasingly qualifies them as senior is the ability to deny, and to spin PR abstractions and big-picture explanations.

Lacking equipment and staff, local-area officers are unable to nab local-area bandits. But the public is assured that “transformation” of the police is underway, and such forces as are available are being redeployed in sonorously-titled specialist squads.

The disconnect widens between the low levels of performance clearly visible to the public and the Martin Joseph show-and-tell of statistics claiming falling rates of “homicides” and kidnaps.

Newspaper readers are likely to attribute the return of the kidnapped Debbie Singh-Ali more to answered prayers and public entreaties than to the intervention of much-touted anti-kidnapping sleuths.

Mrs Singh-Ali will have returned to her home in Roystonia Gardens, Couva, where bandit exploits have lately become the stuff of light-hearted legend.

Since August, ten break-ins have been recorded in the new bedroom community.

“While owners toil at work,” said one Express report, “thieves are breaking into their homes.” And taking their time at it.

At one house, intruders spent a day relaxing on a living-room couch, thumbing through the owners’ wedding album, and making selecting action DVD movies to leave with.

With homeowners away, uninvited guests helped themselves to pelau from the fridge, and even mixed mauby concentrate to wash it down.

Better still, another resident marvelled at the extent to which a burglar had made himself at home.

The intruder had cooked and eaten lunch, borrowed a toothbrush, taken a shower, and finally changed into new clothes belonging to the absent host.

Such near-affectionate pictures of homely, neighbourhood burglars are no doubt shared by the police.

“Couva police said similar burglaries have taken place at nearby houses,” reported the paper, which added that investigations were continuing.

The Roystonia crime pattern is not (yet) that of bloody-minded death squaddies eliminating rivals.

The victim who suffers a violation no more serious than having to share a toothbrush, pelau and some clothes with an unknown intruder may yet preserve some good humour.

Being of good cheer, if not making peace with the crime insurgency, can appear an appropriate counsel for these times when the police themselves appear to be casually engaged, if at all, even in serious high-profile cases.

At the fiasco of the Yasin Abu Bakr retrial, some officers simply didn’t show up to testify. Those who did qualified for negative reviews by Justice Mustapha Ibrahim as he threw out the case:

“The police were not straight... Some had changed their evidence, and Sgt Forde’s evidence was bizarre.

“Sgt Dick did not testify at this trial... Cpl Veronique was present at three interviews, but did not hear what was said...

Sgt Lucas was present at one interview, made notes, but left for Miami on the morning he was to testify.”

If yet back from Miami, the sergeant can be imagined enjoying his break, and much like the Imam’s again, lucky, well-earned, or not.

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