Today marks the first anniversary of the declaration of the state of emergency in T&T which was meant to address the country’s crime problems. One year ago, in an address, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar rationalised the drastic decision by saying: “After intense consultations arising out of intelligence that revealed there existed a clear threat to national security, my Government took the formidable decision to announce a state of emergency to protect the citizens of this country and safeguard the nation.” In an October Divali address, the Prime Minister said the decision to effect a state of emergency in Trinidad and Tobago was “to deal with crime and citizen security amongst other challenges to national security.” Along with the state of emergency, the Government also imposed a curfew, initially from 9 pm to 5 am, in the country’s so-called crime hot spots which included Port-of-Spain, San Fernando, Arima, Chaguanas and the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation.
There are many people in this country who had serious doubts about the existence of a “clear threat to national security,” but there are few who would argue that there was not a sense one year ago that crime was out of control. For several months after the declaration of the State of Emergency and the imposition of the curfew, there was a vigourous and healthy debate about whether the measures were, in fact, effective in protecting the citizens of this country and safeguarding the nation. There is no doubt that crime declined during the period of emergency in which the police and the army had unprecedented powers to search homes and arrest criminals without the constraint of the principle of probable cause. No doubt, the statistics associated with the emergency are impressive: hundreds of people were arrested; dozens of guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and many kilogrammes of illegal drugs worth hundreds of millions of dollars were seized.
One year later, it is also beyond debate that those security measures did not lead to a sustainable decline in criminal activity in this country. Crime took a four-month holiday—with many of the criminals returning to their murderous, drug-dealing ways almost as soon as the curfew ended and the emergency powers were lifted. For some, it may even have turned out to be a paid holiday, given the fact that the Colour Me Orange programme—in which millions of dollars were thrown at the “ghetto” without too much concern about accountability—followed so closely on the heels of the state of emergency.
Quite predictably, the murder rate, which in 2011 had dropped to 354, the lowest level since 2004, is on track to return to the distressing highs of 2008, when 550 people were killed. Once again, the Minister of National Security is talking about going after the big fish of crime—the criminal masterminds who are suspected of having the deep pockets to finance the trafficking of illegal drugs and the laundering of the resultant cash. But if no Mr Big was arrested during the period when the police and army had little or no restrictions on their ability to search and seize, it would take a tremendous leap of faith to believe that the criminal masterminds would be apprehended in a period of full constitutional protections. What T&T needs is not the quick-fix, slap-the-plaster-on-the-sore approach to crime fighting, but an approach based on proper empirical research conducted by trained criminologists who are appropriately resourced and not constrained by the need for political correctness. There may be little cause for optimism that what is being touted as a fresh approach will bring lasting results given last month’s termination of the country’s top police officers and the fact that there has been no word on the research project that the Government commissioned to probe the causes of crime shortly after the state of emergency ended.