Secrecy surrounds CoP’s tenure as contract expires

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

CoP Erla Harewood-Christopher, centre, and deputy CoP Junior Benjamin, speak to a resident during their visit to a crime scene in Cocorite on May 5, where four people were shot dead. – Venessa Mohammed

With two days left on her contract, there is no hint from Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher or the government on if she will be returning to the position or whether there will be a new acting CoP.

Newsday asked questions of the Office of the President, the Police Service Commission (PolSC), National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, and acting prime minister Colm Imbert to get clarity on what would be the fate of the police service past May 14, but the responses from the politicians were non-committal while there was no response from the other independent bodies.

However, people close to Harewood-Christopher said she was “calling it quits” after serving as the substantive CoP from February 2023 and would not resume the role even if offered another one-year contract as she did not get the support she expected in the police ranks and received unfair criticism from the public.

When asked if he received the appraisal for Hareword-Christopher from the PolSC in during a press briefing on May 9, Imbert suggested reporters look to the judgment of High Court Judge Nadia Kangaloo in October 2021.

He said,“I suggest you go and look at the law. I think it will give you some idea of what has to take place,” thereby suggesting an extension was not forthcoming.

In the judgment, Kangaloo said former police commissioner Gary Griffith’s appointment as acting commissioner by the PolSC was illegal and unconstitutional, which left the post vacant.

She also said, under Section 123 of the Constitution, for both the acting and substantive CoP, a merit list had to be prepared by the PolSC and sent it to the President, who would then issue it to the House of Representatives for approval.

Section 75 of Police Service Act also allows for the President to extend the term of a first division officer who is due to retire.

An extension in Harewood-Christopher’s tenure was approved by Parliament in May 2023 and it ends on May 14, as she celebrates her 62nd birthday the following day. And, under the law, she could receive two one-year extensions but it would have to be based a favourable appraisal from the PolSC.

Harewood-Christopher had been acting in the post from December 7, 2022 when then acting commissioner Mc Donald Jacob went on vacation. She was confirmed as the substantive CoP on February 3 but was due to retire when she turned 60 on May 15, 2023.

An acting CoP will have to be appointed in order to give the PolSC an opportunity to appoint a substantive commissioner as, in 2022, seven months lapsed between the deadline for application for the position and Harewood-Christopher’s confirmation in the position.

The position was advertised in daily newspapers on April 11. The deadline for applications was May 3. Parliament has a sitting on Monday but according to the Order Paper there is no nomination before the Lower House from the Office of the President for the post of acting CoP.

In her address at the 101st Police Sports Day at the Police Academy Grounds, St James on May 11, Harewood-Christopher gave no indication, not saying goodbye to her troops or assuring them of her return. Instead, she spoke to the theme Embracing Togetherness Through All Ranks speaking of unity in their daily service.

CoP Erla Harewood-Christopher officially opens the 101st annual police sports and family day at the Police Training Academy, St James on May 11. – ROGER JACOB

She said, “It is through unity that we can tackle the challenges of social disorder that faces our nation and serve the public with greater effectiveness and compassion.”

When members of the media approached her and Hinds after the march past, Hinds asked the media to give them a minute. They both stood up and walked away into a building while the media waited for over 20 minutes.

Eventually, Hinds came out, greeting people and taking pictures with guests while the media waited in his line of sight. When he was done, he rushed past without a glance as one of his officers told the waiting reporters he was late for another event.

Meanwhile, there was no sign of Harewood-Christopher. Members of media eventually saw her in the building having lunch with Chief Justice Ivor Archie and other guests.

Politics in the process

Snr Supt Andre Norton, who was among 16 on the shortlist for the position in 2021, told Sunday Newsday he did not re-apply for the position because he did not believe it made any sense.

Snr Supt Andre Norton –

“If you were on a list where the President sent your name to the Parliament to be debated and it was never debated, it gives an indication that, for some reason or the other, I’m probably not one of those favoured by the politicians.

“Remember the office of commissioner and deputy commissioner require Parliamentary approval so they are really political positions. The debate process is just a formality.”

He said he had since put the idea of being CoP behind him and he moved on.

He added that the CoP was the head of his organisation so he could do nothing but support her fully in everything she did.

Former commissioner Gary Griffith, now the political leader of the National Transformation Alliance, said even though many wanted him to return to the role, he too did not and would not apply for the position again. He said he could do a lot more in government.

“Been there, done that. I’ve already been commissioner of police. The next job that I want is Keith Rowley’s job.

“The same way I was able to transform the police service, I’ll be able to transform every arm, not just the protective services but the public service, to make sure there’s a degree of accountability and measuring performance – things that are not done right now in the public service.”

Griffith said one problem was the Constitution allowing the prime minister to “hand-pick” a President who then selects the members of the PolSC, so its members were all politically appointed.

Commenting on Harewood-Christopher’s tenure, he said in the final interview for the post in 2018, when the selection for police commissioner was done by “qualified, independent, international experts,” he got 82 per cent said she got 52 per cent. Then he said, in 2021, he got 94 per cent and she got 74.

“You can’t tell me a year later that a new PolSC could find this lady and put her as number one.”

CoP Erla Harewood-Christopher chats with Chief Justice Ivor Archie at the annual police sports and family day at the Police Academy, St James on May 11. – ROGER JACOB

He said the person selected would not be based on who was the most qualified, experienced and capable. Instead it would be who the government “could whisper to.”

Meanwhile, Lt Col Sheldon Ramanan, inspector general of the Defence Force, said he had re-applied for the post a third time.

When asked his reason the attorney said “timing is everything and nothing happens before its time” and there was no greater calling than service to country.

“I verily believe that, now more than before, I am better equipped and prepared to take the helm of the police service and to tackle all forms of crime and criminality plaguing our nation.”

Ramanan refused to comment on the current leadership of the police service but said, if appointed, he would be committed to setting the conditions of a “safe and secure TT” even as he recognised change would not occur overnight.

“There would be a lot of inconvenience to many law abiding citizens at the outset but that is the price that we will all have to pay in order to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the police service and to reduce the fear and anxiety of crime for each and every law-abiding citizen.”

Failure to communicate

Both an active and former member of the police agreed the CoP’s position was an extremely difficult job but believed better communication with the media, and therefore the public, would have put Harewood-Christopher in a better position.

Police Social and Welfare Association president Gideon Dickson said being the CoP was the toughest and most thankless job in TT at the moment.

“Ms Erla Christopher came into office in tumultuous times when the data would have represented the highest number of murders in the country up to that point in time.”

He said the attempts by Harewood-Christopher and her executive to stymie the increasing murder rate through precision and blue line patrols resulted in the figures being reduced from 605 in 2022 to 577 in 2023 and 201 as of May 10.

He described her move to assess and promote officers from constable to corporal as “bold and brave” even though a mix-up involving nearly 1,000 junior officers ended up in court. He said the assessments were completed in “record time,” six months, resulting in over 2,300 officers being confirmed. The last group that was introduced to corporal ranks was in 2016 even though they passed their exam between 2009 and 2022.

Dickson said she ensured all officers were retrained in the use of their firearms and were certified competent.

“This is another historic move which aught to be commended because, although you’re trained in the firearm, your usefulness and effectiveness needs to be trained and retrained like anything else.”

In addition, he said on May 8 the association was invited to a rollout of the TTPS’ operational plan for 2024. He said it was different because the views of the officers were solicited to try to make better operational targets.

Also, he said, between Jacob and Harewood-Christopher both the Moriah Police Station in Tobago and the Barataria Police Stations were restored, giving citizens meaningful access to the police.

“I wanted to say, on behalf of the Association, those things did not go unnoticed.”

He said there was no blueprint for the job so everyone had their own ideas but, like anything else, there was room for improvement including communication with the media, the public and internal customers.

“You have to take the good with the bad and live with it.”

A former senior executive officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said being the CoP was not “a one-man show.” He stressed it was a team effort, even though people tended to focus on the commissioner when something negative happened.

He also admitted dealing with crime, especially gangs, was not easy.

“No matter who is the commissioner, they will have a terrible time dealing with the crime situation. However, if you are focussing on that alone you will run into problems.

“That is why you must implement other strategies that are required for crime fighting, to give the country a high-level of trust and confidence and, feel a sense of safety and security.”

He explained the police had a 2022-2024 Strategic Plan and every year an operational plan was created to meet certain goals. Therefore, the police were working and “things are happening” but the public was unaware.

He said the lack of communication of the CoP and the police in general with the media during Harewood-Christopher’s term set the police back decades to a “traditional” form of policing when officers thought police business was not the people’s business.

“If these things are kept secret, the population will be of the opinion that nothing is happening. So the lack of communication with the media has affected the understanding of what the police is doing and, it has reduced the trust and confidence of the people in the police.”