Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher has finally spoken about her failure to deliver on her promise to reduce the country’s spiraling homicide rate by June.
When she appeared before Parliament’s Joint Select Committee (JSC) on National Security weeks after being appointed the country’s first female commissioner in February, Harewood-Christopher sought to allay fears that this year’s annual count would exceed the 600 murders recorded last year.
She had said then: “We’d expect to see a change in the murder rate short-term by June, and long-term by December.”
However, in a 16-minute recorded statement released by the T&T Police Service (TTPS) Corporate Communications Unit on Friday night, Harewood-Christopher sought to justify the ambitious target she set herself that did not materialise.
“I remember the assurances I made to the public and while some would have said they came from a place of overexuberance from me, it came from my desire to effect change and from my confidence that the TTPS has the capacity to achieve its vision to make every place in Trinidad and Tobago safe,”she said.
Harewood-Christopher admitted that she had been approached by the media to address the issue after the murder count recently crossed the 300 mark, but said she declined until she felt it was appropriate to address the public.
“Earlier this week, the murder toll reached 300 and our national consciousness was jolted as we reached this dreaded milestone, and in a sense, we all share the collective disappointment that this is how violent our society has become,” she said.
However, she sought to reject criticism based on the unfulfilled promise.
“While I respect the right of individuals to express various views and comments on issues albeit the views may often emanate from a place of despair, anxiety, and genuine concern, even sometimes raw emotion, and understandably so, there must be an appreciation for the fact that there is a lot the police do and knows that would be imprudent and impractical for the police to disclose,” she said.
“That void however should not be filled with uninformed and often unwarranted critical views,” she added.
She admitted that the 286 murders recorded between January and June, including 23 double murders and four triple murders, represented the highest recorded for the first six months of the year with the second highest being 278 in 2018 followed by 259 last year. The average for the period over the past decade was 257.
Harewood-Christopher said gang activity is the greatest contributor to the homicides followed by drug activity with illegal firearms the preferred weapon to commit these offences.
She noted that more than 50 per cent of the murder were committed in the area covered by the Region Two Homicide Bureau, which is responsible for most of northern and eastern Trinidad. For the year, 51 murders were solved with 47 persons being charged by homicide detectives. Thirty-one of those solved murders occurred this year.
Harewood-Christopher said although she and her executive team implemented a series of initiatives almost immediately upon her assuming office, their efforts were hampered by numerous factors outside their control.
“We are seeing instability in the gang networks, rivalry among individual gangs, and alliances being formed between break-away groups resulting in fights for turf,” Harewood-Christopher said.
“We observe the practice of repeat offenders sharing their experience with their peers and working to empower perpetrators to inhibit the proper investigation of crimes,” she added.
She also noted that the reluctance of witnesses of crime to cooperate with investigators continued to pose a challenge.
“Despite the availability of technological and scientific evidence, the unavailability of the human context severely constrains the work of investigators,” she said. “Witnesses are afraid to come forward and provide the required information.”
She also pointed to a decrease in confessions from those accused of violent crimes.
“The hardened modern criminal culture does not encourage offenders to account to their conscience resulting in a situation where there are less confessions coming out of investigations,” she said.
Stating that innovative and unprecedented legislative interventions were required to deal with firearm possession and violence crime, Harewood-Christopher suggested that persons accused of such crimes should be mandated to wear electronic monitoring devices when released on bail.
She also maintained that she is committed to community policing initiatives, including the TTPS’s Community Justice Clinic, which began as a pilot project before being implemented across all ten policing divisions.
“Perhaps these initiatives may not resonate with all citizens as any measure of success but be assured that the old adage that prevention is better than cure can,” she said.
Harewood-Christopher also promised to improve public trust and confidence in the TTPS.
“I commit to continue to address the issue of indiscipline in the rank and file and ensure that officers respond with a high standard of service, professionalism, respect, integrity, dignity, and excellence,” she said.
“The TTPS cannot do it alone. I continue to urge all concerned citizens to consider that the unacceptably high level of delinquency and lawlessness in our country that is fuelling violent crime requires all of us to make an intervention,” she added.
Harewood-Christopher took the opportunity to highlight some progress in crime fighting made by the TTPS during her brief tenure. She noted that anti-crime initiatives over the past six months resulted in the seizure of 375 illegal firearms compared to 356 for the corresponding period last year.
The TTPS seized 9,264 rounds of assorted ammunition, 427 kilos of marijuana, and 178 kilos of cocaine during the period and 625 persons were arrested for firearm and ammunition possession, while 651 were detained for housebreaking, larceny, and robbery offences.
“As Commissioner, I appreciate that despite the successes of the TTPS in other areas of policing, it is the murder toll that most concerns the citizenry and causes their greatest anxiety and grief and it is for this reason it carries the most weight in my scorecard and that of every single police officer,” Harewood-Christopher said.
She promised more initiatives from the TTPS in the next few months.
“You would see us building on our successes . . . We will persist in our work to get the results we desire and the country is demanding of us,” she said.
She also sent to a message to the criminal elements about the TTPS’s “zero-tolerance” approach going forward.
“I also appeal to the perpetrators of crime, the supporters of crime, and those who benefit from criminal activity, to desist. Now is a good time to withdraw from criminality. You are guaranteed to fail once you are confronted by the police,” she said.