Top cop struggles with JSC crime queries – Erla fumbles

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher on Wednesday at the JSC meeting. – Angelo Marcelle

AFTER two years of abysmal crime rates and a Police Service Commission (PSC) survey which placed public confidence in the Police Service at an all-time low of just eight per cent, Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher and members of her executive appeared before Parliament’s National Security Joint Select Committee (JSC) to account for strategies launched last year to fight crime.

At times during the meeting on Wednesday, Harewood-Christopher seemed challenged and struggled to answer questions from JSC members about the success (or failure) of these strategies, and to give the public the confidence and assurance that the police are getting on top of the crime situation.

She often fumbled through documents before her and had to ask the chair for time in order to give her replies.

At a recent PNM public meeting in San Juan, the Prime Minister defended Harewood-Christopher’s tenure, thus far, especially in the face of the rampant murder rate as well as other serious crimes including home-invasions. He called on people not to denigrate the top cop saying to do so would be of no value to the crime-fighting push.

JSC chairman and Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland observed that next month will mark Harewood-Christopher’s first year as head of the police service.

He asked her to assess her performance.

Lack of public support

Harewood-Christopher said her first year in office was challenging both internally and externally.

She attributed the lack of public support as a major problem in police not achieving its anti-crime targets.

“Our partners, our stakeholders could have done a little more in supporting the organisation, in supporting crime fighting.” In response to questions from Scotland, Harewood-Christopher clarified that she meant members of the public.

She reiterated that crime-fighting requires a whole-of-society approach and was not only a job for the police. Scotland asked what caused this lack of public confidence in the service.

Harewood-Christopher replied, “I know some of my officers may have contributed to the public not having the confidence they require (in the police).” She said the police have taken a zero tolerance approach to indiscipline in its ranks.

“That is obvious in the number of officers who would have been before the courts just in the last year.” Harewood-Christopher put that number at 58. Despite not meeting the targets it set last year, Harewood-Christopher said the police did have some successes.

Instead of reducing murders by 20 per cent, she continued, they were reduced by five percent.

With respect to violent crimes, Harewood-Christopher said there was a 15 per cent decrease instead of the 20 per cent target the police were aiming for. Scotland asked about measures taken to significantly reduce crime.

She identified retrieval of illegal firearms and dismantling criminal gangs as two such measures.

On the latter, she said, “What we are focusing on is bringing greater management to anti-gang operations.” A team has been created in the service to do this. “We have been successful in disrupting gang activities.”

Scotland asked if gangs were being dismantled by disrupting their operations.

“If you take the legislation (Anti-Gang Act) into consideration, there is a process by which you must bring criminals (gang members) to court,” Harewood-Christopher said.

She added, “We focus on disrupting the activities as we continue to do our due diligence and our intelligence work to bring down the gangs

Plans were too ambitious

Independent Senator Dr Paul Richards asked Harewood-Christopher why police anti-crime targets were not met.

Harewood-Christopher said this happened “because the targets were a bit exaggerated.”

She added that this exaggeration is was done to “motivate police officers” to strive to hit those targets.

Harewood-Christopher told JSC members that no anti-crime plan, initiated before her time, ever achieved the intended objective.

Asked by Richards whether the anti-crime strategies would be reviewed, Harewood-Christopher said yes. “I can’t be so ambitious to set stretched targets again,” the top cop admitted.

JSC member and Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal questioned Harewood-Christopher about vetting units in the service and criminals posing as police to commit crimes – or as he put it, the “fake police crisis.”

Moonilal said these issues relate to public confidence in the police and “corruption in the police service which has remained endemic for some time.”

He added that vetting units might be on the agenda of the Prime Minister as he engages with US government officials in Washington, DC, this week.

At a PNM public meeting in San Fernando last July, Dr Rowley spoke of the need for vetted units to weed out corrupt police officers.

Harewood-Christopher told Moonilal that the police have vetted units. Officers undergo rigorous background checks and other tests before they join these units. Opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial asked if similar checks were made for the rest of the police service.

She said this also speaks to the lack of public confidence.

“If it is you have to say that I have to hand-pick specialised vetting units with police who are above reproach and do a certain level of vetting on them to ensure they can perform certain functions, doesn’t that undermine confidence in the rest of the police service?”

Harewood-Christopher told Lutchmedial police recruits undergo background checks and polygraph tests before they enter the service.

On “fake police,” Lutchmedial said that as a woman, while driving, she is wary of being stopped by someone who could be masquerading as a police officer.

SAY WHAT?: JSC chairman Keith Scotland, right, speaks with member Dr Paul Richards during the sitting on Wednesday. PHOTOS BY ANGELO MARCELLE – Angelo Marcelle

Scotland reminded Harewood-Christopher that the police have the power to investigate stores which sell clothing that could pass for police uniforms and charge the owners if necessary.

Richards asked what happens to officers found to be colluding with criminals. Harewood-Christopher said investigations are launched into these matters and in some cases, officers are suspended.

Scotland asked Harewood-Christopher whether she would support legislation before Parliament that would make drug and polygraph testing mandatory for members of the protective services. She agreed she would.

“I will submit myself (for testing).” She said other members of her executive would do the same.

Promotions mess

Richards said recent threats of legal action to stop police promotions also undermine public confidence in the police service.

“Why should the public not question the competence of a police service to do what is an ordinary operation in HR (human resources) and IR (industrial relations) services in any organisation in the country where tabulating marks and having a digital process go so awry?”

He added, “To me, this is cause for grave concern.”

Harewood-Christopher said, “That promotion exercise was supposed to be one to build the morale of the ground crew.”

She added, “Most of the officers would have qualified, passed their exams and be eligible (for) promotion since 2008.”

Acting Deputy Police Commissioner Ramnarine Samaroo said the problem with the promotions arose because of the difficulty in interviewing some 2,232 police officers listed for promotion. Richards asked about officers who were promoted when they should not have been.

Moonilal asked, “Did you take back the stripe or something?”

Samaroo replied, “That’s an issue where legal issue is being sought.” Government senator Richie Sookhai suggested it was time for the police to outsource its human resource functions to a private sector entity to avoid a repeat of this kind of problem

Ammo accounted for

Snr Supt Curt Simon said a recent inventory by the police has accounted tor all of its ammunition. He added that the TT Defence Force has done a similar inventory.

But Simon admitted that no one has been held with respect to reports of police or military ammunition showing up on crime scenes, even though these cases are small.

Harewood-Christopher said firearms user licences (FULs) continue to be approved to legitimate requests. She added there are currently 25,000 FUL applications awaiting review and some were pending before she assumed office

Richards was not satisfied by Harewood-Christopher’s comment that she was not satisfied with some of the things said on the Beyond the Tape crime talk-show hosted on CCN TV6, co-hosted by a police presenter.

“Isn’t there a mandate for that show,” he asked.

Richard said he has heard things on the show which seem contradictory to positions taken by the police.

Harewood-Christopher agreed that the show was supposed to represent the position of the TTPS. But she added, “There may be times when the presenter is a bit averse to heads of the organisation.” Richards declared, “That is a shocking revelation!”

Moonilal asked whether the police had sufficient resources to fight crime. Harewood-Christopher said yes.

She disclosed that the police are in the process of procuring 270 new vehicles. Richards then asked about the use of body cameras.

He told Harewood-Christopher about videos on social media of a police operation in which no officers were wearing body cameras. Richards was dissatisfied with Harewood-Christopher’s comment that the matter would be investigated.

He said this was not something any CoP should be told to do.

Government Senator Richie Sookhai and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Ayanna Webster-Roy questioned whether 11 minutes was an appropriate time for the police to respond to calls from the public about crime.

Harewood-Christopher replied that this was a reduction in the previous response time of 12-13 minutes.

She also told JSC members that customer service representatives will be assigned to major police stations to get feedback from the public as to how the police can improve their level of service.

As the meeting came to an end, Harewood-Christopher reiterated that the police continue to strive to fight crime, need the public’s support to do so and will secure the nation at all quarters. She gave her commitment to doing so.

“I will lead from in front,” she promised.