Tobago’s top cop vows to curb gangland killings

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

The picturesque Pigeon Point jetty, one of the many tourist attractions on the island of Tobago. – JEFF K MAYERS

RODHILL KIRK, newly-appointed Snr Supt of the Tobago Division, said the majority of the ten murders that have been committed on the island for the year so far were gang-related, a new phenomenon for the island, – a haven for tourists from the US, UK and Europe.

“As it relates to murders, what we are seeing so far is that about 80 per cent is actually related to gang activity. Based on the intel we have gathered and the enquiries on the ground, it relates to gang activity,” he said in an interview with Newsday.

Kirk, who has been a police officer for 33 years, regarded this scenario as unprecedented.

“We have never seen such a thing before. While we may have the murders out of domestic violence, out of some form of altercation, it has never had that relation to gangs.”

He believes, though, that gangs in Tobago “are not of the proportion in Trinidad.” But he said they are driven by the battle for drug turf.

“So you find now that if you are affiliated to a particular gang and you venture into areas where the other persons were affiliated to another gang, this is what is spiralling the thing out of control.”

Snr Supt Rodhill Kirk, head of the Tobago Division. –

As a result, he said, it is no longer easy to identify the communities in which gangs operate.

“While we could have said that Scarborough and environs have some activity, Plymouth have some activity, Golden Lane have some activity. Now, it is not isolated these communities. Things are happening throughout the island in places we have not seen.”

He cited a shooting incident at the Nine’s Bar in Speyside on May 3 where seven people were shot, as an example.

“This is something that I have never had on record that they had something like that in that area. We had shooting in Goldsborough and Pembroke. Again, these are things that we have not seen in these areas over the years.

“So again, things have been spreading throughout and our duty is to really disrupt or prevent these things from happening.”

Kirk, who was promoted to the rank of senior superintendent in early May, said the police is not only about crime detection but crime prevention.

“We are trying to be proactive in making sure that our resources are on the ground in the event of any sort of activity where we can respond quickly as well. This is our aim and objective right now.”

Saying the division is addressing the situation frontally, Kirk said it has already implemented several measures to disrupt gang activity.

Part of their strategy, he said, involves increased visibility.

“We have directed patrols in hotspots and we are using the intelligence in terms of how we deploy our resources. We know that based on what we are seeing that these criminals are networking as well because they tend to surveil the police activity.

“But so far, since we have undertaken to increase our visibility strategically, we have seen at least a reduction in our violent crimes.”

Still, he said there must be a workable solution to the problem of illegal guns entering the island.

“I always call Tobago one of the most unique policing divisions because we are an island as opposed to the others who are all connected by land. It is correct to say that we cannot totally control all of our entry points around the island.”

Police cordon off the road in Mt St George, Tobago where the body of a woman was found off a precipice on May 4. – Photo by Caswell Gordon 

Kirk believes there is “not much of a problem where trafficking takes place,” at the legal ports of entry.

“We do a lot of port exercises but the airport has a more stringent way to control the inflow of anything. So anything that may likely come from outside would be through vehicles travelling through and the police does regular exercises on the port in collaboration with the Port Authority.

“We made a lot of seizures on the port but it is hardly in relation to firearms. We have found some firearms but hardly in relation to that.”

But he said the police are aware that guns do come into Tobago from “pirogues on the high seas.

“Just as the police is aware, the criminal underground is also aware of what is taking place. So they tend to capitalise on those opportunities.

“But we are aware that on our coastal areas, we do as much as possible in trying to prevent or try to detect when these things happen.”

Asked about the role of the Coast Guard in this regard, Kirk would only say, “I don’t want to blame any other agencies for the issues that they may have but we are aware of the challenges being faced by our Coast Guard.”

Despite the efforts being made by the police to reduce violent crime, Kirk welcomed the THA’s plan to set up it’s own police force on the island.

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine is expected to make a statement on the steps that are being taken to establish the localised unit during his budget presentation in the Assembly Legislature, Scarborough, on June 24.

The police force, if established, is expected be a major component of the Department of Public Safety and Security, which will fall within the remit of the Office of the Chief Secretary. Augustine said last week that the establishment of the Department of Safety was “pretty advanced.”

Kirk, who is also an attorney, said the plan to set up a police unit separate from the police service is not new.

“It is not something that has now come around. It is something that has been in the air for several years. We will welcome any additional resources that are geared towards fighting crime in Tobago.”

The senior police officer said although the island has experienced an increase in murders when compared to the same period, last year, “serious crimes are not of exponential proportions.

“We are basically on par with last year’s figures.”

He claimed there also has been an improvement in the detection rate and in the division’s preventative measures.

Kirk, who is originally from Golden Lane, Tobago, believes increased community engagement through walkabouts, station council meetings and police youth club activities have also borne fruit.

In this file photo, Alex Pancho, owner of Carolina Point Resort, Pigeon Point, plays with his dog Xeus, a two-year-old Rottweiler, at Swallow’s Beach. –

“It is working for me. That is what I am seeing. That is something that will continue throughout the rest of the year because we are seeing progress being made, slowly but surely and we intend to continue along that line in order to bring Tobago back to the safe place it once was.”

Kirk regarded as “a myth,” the view that officers, owing to the island’s smallness, may be reluctant to bring relatives, who may be involved in criminal activity, to justice.

“If you look at Tobago, the records will show that it has always been one of the most consistent divisions in terms of even the way in which they prosecute people.

“We have been sometimes first and second in terms of our detection rate. We have been leading the way and the issue of relatives, I am saying that is a myth because notwithstanding, the police in Tobago are less tolerant to criminal activities. People may feel that you have a relative and you may not want to do that. No. Our mindset is different.”

“I am not saying they may not have the isolated thing where people may look the other way. But it is not something that we are aware of is happening on a large scale.”

Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher has also taken the deliberate decision to transfer other senior officers to work in Tobago to combat that perception. A new anti-gang unit is also being formed and already several officers have been interviewed. Those joining the unit will have to pass polygraph tests.

On lesser crimes, Kirk said larceny and burglaries continue to be a challenge.

“Some of the larcenies relate to people leaving items outside unsecured and people pass and take that opportunity. In terms of housebreaking, some of the houses are easy opportunities because people did not properly secure (their homes). While some of them are properly secured spaces, sometimes they pass, nobody may be at home and they take the opportunity.”

Many people in Tobago do not lock their doors and windows, particularly in the countryside.

Kirk said the police have charged several people for the burglaries and the matters are currently before the court.

“The officers have been relentless in their pursuits. All it needs now is for us to sustain it. So we need to manage our resources properly in terms of how we deploy our resources on the street.”

Kirk said this is one of the reasons why they are urging members of the community to support their efforts.

“The issue has to be trust and confidence in the police and this is why our community engagements are targeted at trying to rebuild it to a level that people will feel comfortable in terms of engaging the police with information.”

He said unlike years gone by, people are “understanding the dynamics” of forming alliances with the police.

“People are being aware through our public awareness campaigns. So they recognise the importance of when they see something, say something.

“So I think that based on what we are doing now, people have an appreciation and an understanding that this is where we live and we need to maintain that level of safety and security. The co-operation is significant. I must thank the Tobago public for being on board.”

On the issue of recruitment, Kirk said many of the island’s young men are interested in joining the police service but some of them either lack the requisite qualifications or are disqualified for various reasons during the process.

“That is happening not just in Tobago but throughout the country.”

He also observed that young men from Trinidad also came to Tobago during the last recruitment drive on the island.

“They have to understand that at the end of the day the recruitment is for Tobago and when they go through this process, it is Tobago they will be posted.”

Kirk said the Tobago Division has also been encouraging young men to join the police service.

“We have embarked on a drive through the police youth clubs and some of our units in Tobago would have hosted several caravans. We would have also gone to some of the schools in terms of trying to capture some of these young persons who are now leaving school.”

Recently, the police have also started to compile a list of those who may be interested so that they could be called upon whenever there is an impending recruitment drive.

“There is a high level of interest in Tobago but we don’t have the numbers we will likely have in Trinidad.”