Any list of troubles in our local Police Service would include excessive use of force, blurred lines between police and military, an intense focus on policing the poor, failure to police the wealthy and white-collar crime in general, a lack of police accountability, street justice, regular fatalities in interactions between police and the public, low conviction rates, and internal corruption.
Applied anthropologists who historically have worked to improve justice systems around the world, are quick to point out the racist logic and prejudice against the poor embedded in many police cultures. For example, one of National Security Minister Gary Griffith's favourite borrowed theories for reducing crime in T&T–the "Broken Windows" policing of documented racist Rudy Giuliani–is an already discredited idea understood academically in the US as a war on the poor and people of colour.
Instead of this continued importation of broken "solutions," which ignore a society's own structural inequalities, local history and culture, and the context of how individuals enter and live in poverty, to solely go after the poor for being poor, and never white-collar criminals, what might bring more progressive policing and law enforcement to T&T?
According to Dr Jennie Simpson, an anthropologist of policing in North America, one question to ask is do police agencies need anthropologists? While acknowledging "how hard implementation–even of the best vision–can be, especially within a hierarchical organisation," and that in general being a police officer is a thankless job, Simpson lists three elements anthropology brings to policing in comparison to other disciplines.
1. Anthropologists help police leaders better understand their departments and personnel and identify opportunities to offer better police services to communities.
2. Anthropologists help police leaders translate policing to the public and bridge ethical considerations in the implementation of crime-prevention policies.
3. By understanding police culture, police leaders create policy and practices that highlight the spirit of service in policing and emphasise legitimacy, transparency and public confidence.
Few will have missed the story of ACP Reyes and his journey to his new post in Tobago. Witness accounts say the officer was rude, abusive, and ignored the directions of those in charge. His justification for his "above-the-law" behaviour was to cite all passengers and staff on the plane as conspiring in a white supremacist plot against him.
Regular readers of this column know white supremacy is a problem in both our local society and more globally. As any sociologist will tell you, the world is structurally racist and capitalism is historically driven by the logic of white supremacy. And yes, white supremacy can be subtle and unobtrusive too. However, from all the details available, to describe the ACP Reyes incident as driven by the logic of white supremacy would be silly.
That said, for any senior police officer to cite the term and language, "white supremacy," suggests a cultural rich point in line with Simpson's research that police leaders and personnel need to better understand their departments' culture.
For example, how does our police force both as an institution and as individual police personnel deal with local race and class issues? Are people given race, ethnicity and gender training? Given in T&T racial issues are not simply black vs white or solely driven by white supremacy, how do our police treat and understand the complexity of our differences?
Another element is how do our police forces view the poor and how do they view the rich? What are the implications of such views for law-abiding citizens? Who are the police most biased against? How are alternative lifestyles treated?
Simpson defines police culture as, "the values, norms, perspectives and craft rules which inform police conduct," and "the informal occupational norms and values operating under the apparently rigid hierarchical structure of police organisations." She notes also this collective culture historically possesses "a cynicism and suspicion towards certain people, places and events," which will remind any criminologist the original police forces of the 19th century were invented by elites as a response to crowds, not crime.
In this sense, the collective culture of policing in T&T can be seen as Simpson suggests–an impediment to change within a police force reluctant to develop and implement "innovative and evidence-informed practices, as well as to organisational change and the cultivation of new methods for achieving accountability, legitimacy and public trust."
Such resistance includes being cynical to change and individual prejudices within the police force. Yet our police force–and our political leaders too–do not have the internal ability to treat such subtleties. Anthropologists are experts in culture. When it comes to policing, anthropologists bring an understanding of the collective culture and sub-cultures of those involved in police work.
By letting anthropologists into their organisations police leaders would better understand the cultural dynamics obstructing innovation. They would learn the viewpoints and experiences of rank and file staff, and become more attuned to the realities of their officers in ways that could improve their critical buy-in and engender cultural transformation of the police as an institution itself.