The past two weeks have been a watershed for policing.
The National Security Minister’s “oops, I didn’t mean crime-free” Carnival holiday saw incidents in Scarborough and La Brea where police officers and a vehicle were attacked by citizens, one officer rendered unconscious. Among Port of Spain’s annual Carnival stabbing and violent robbery victims were current and former security force members.
The Tuesday before, galvanised by the police shooting of Mikeal Lancaster, with television cameras rolling, Laventille residents openly named for the Police Commissioner and their Parliamentarian officers they described as “savages” and gang-affiliated. The media published their names—the residents, that is, not the policemen.
The collapse of policing and the paralysis of leadership in fixing it aren’t new. But they are now completely unmistakable. On Wednesday Min. Dillon introduced a political spinphrase to engage with this impotence, one so thoroughly ironic you can’t help wonder if its choice isn’t deeply cynical:
We have minimised crime.
My encounters with the protective services Carnival Monday and Tuesday seem remote from this violence and anarchy. But they do feel intimately linked with the political deafness and disconnect of Edmund Dillon’s Ash Wednesday press release.
Dropping the folks to Jerningham Ave. to cross the stage with Ronnie & Caro was a breeze. Unlike pan Saturday, the north perimeter of the Savannah had two-way traffic and police directing it; and Belmont’s streets were unobstructed. But habit took over and, instead of retracing my steps, I took off down Norfolk St. into Observatory, up and down Bath to Piccadilly and Nelson, figuring I’d find a route to Wrightson Rd. At Independence Square, uniformed officers, weighted down by automatic weaponry and sweltering in bulletproof clothing, casually waved to vehicles to turn around.
I pulled up to one, wound down the window, and let the inhumane volume of the passing big truck in. “Good morning, Officer. How do I get to Wrightson Rd.?”
“You have to turn around and go back so.”
As I drove forward to turn, another who hadn’t been paying attention would cooyah his mouth insouciantly at me, word as well that I couldn’t go that way. I didn’t respond verbally; he didn’t move. I would ask the first one a second time: “Yes. But how do I get onto Wrightson Rd.?” And as I insisted I needed a solution to the blocked road, and as he offered yet again “You have to go back so,” it would begin to dawn on me that he had no idea how to get there, had nothing to offer me.
All his firepower and camouflage and brawn was useless for anything but blocking the road. He eventually made directions up, which got me lost, driving up and down Eastern Main Rd. I found the Beetham—going east—turned around at Maritime Plaza, a manoeuvre for which there is hardly any signage—thinking of European tourists winding up in East Dry River or Beetham Gardens.
I’d had a glimmer of hope on Monday. Stink and dutty and mashup after Jouvay in Woodbrook, I returned to a block full of cars, blocked by a food cart at the northern end, where I’d deliberately chosen to park to avoid music truck traffic. Every vehicle had been wrecked.
No cash. No ATM card. No state for public transport. Almost no charge in the phone. I approached one of three police officers idling by Adam Smith Square, badge-numbers obscured by their bulletproof vests, to gripe. And find out where the car would have been towed.
“Either Sea Lots of Movietowne.”
The expletives curled around how was I to know, and the simple measure of putting up a “No Parking” sign. To which I got that Carnival parking regulations are published in the papers annually for me to read. “So can you tell me where I can park when I come back out later? It’s not in today’s paper.” Her gestures made clear helping me was sooo not her job. I insisted.
“Anywhere off the parade route,” she made up an answer. Which was where I was parked when I was wrecked, of course.
A warning about laws against obscene language. An encouragement to make an arrest—and papers. (Maybe I’d get dropped to the impound?) But she made clear she wasn’t going to be doing that much work. Fellow officers sidled up to reinforce that I needed to move along, especially since I was so ill-behaved, encouraged her to dismiss me.
Kneeling in the road to show evidence of contrite good behaviour—begging for information. Still no answers for where the car was; or where to park.
Dragging ourselves to MovieTowne, an older officer trying valiantly to block Carlos St. with no barrier and no machine gun said our car was in Sea Lots; and noted since TTPS has started putting Carnival traffic restrictions in the paper, they’ve stopped deploying officers to put out “No Parking” signs.
Over my hour or so in line at the Central Market spillover impound, dozens of us languished, several half-naked, greasy and paint-smeared in the drizzle. Only when I got near the front, an officer informed me I couldn’t enter a government office shirtless: find something to cover myself from my car.
I insisted they’d have to find a solution. One who’d sidled over after the exchange did—enforcing the pointless rule by taking my documents and money and bringing me back the receipt. When the supervisor I’d requested arrived, I was able to congratulate him, and he smiled:
And then he spoiled it all. An Eastern Caribbean-accented man put on a show of Canadian self-assertion (despite multiple remonstrances from others in line that the protest they were joking about earlier actually achieves nothing), started phone-recording, pitched his money down, and was shoved out the office and promised to be served last of all.
In the face of policing’s collapse, tiny ways two officers made me human seemed enormous. But they point out how even in the smallest things officers can’t bring the simplest measure of empathy or solution-seeking to the job.