There has been a massive public outcry over the past several weeks about the failure of police officers to attend court hearings leaving magistrates with no choice but to dismiss matters that have been dragging on for years.
According to statistics from the Court and Process Branch of the Police Service, there were 1800 cases in 2019 alone where police officers failed to show up for court.
In this instalment of Injustice: A Broken System, Guardian Media spoke with two police officers who go through the process of charging suspects and preparing for court appearances. Both officers will be kept anonymous.
One explained that when a police officer charges a civilian and takes them before the court, the officer becomes the “police complainant.” They are now responsible for compiling a file with all of their evidence to hand over to prosecutors. This file, which includes witness statements, any evidence they have gathered, the statement of the accused person, the victim’s statement and the complainant’s statement, forms a key part of the state’s case against any accused person.
In its absence, cases will collapse.
The officer said while he was aware of the importance of his input in the justice system, the process was too often long and tedious.
“From a constable, the file goes to a corporal, from the corporal to a sergeant, from a sergeant to an inspector, the inspector to your Assistant Superintendent then back to the Senior Superintendent before it gets to Court and Process where the prosecutor will then get a copy of the file. But while it is moving through all of these people, everyone has their two cents to add in and they always want to send it back so it can be amended to try to make the case the stronger,” he said.
The officer said this process usually takes months and while it is ongoing, the court matter is being recalled every 28 days if the accused is in the Remand Yard or every two months if the accused is granted bail.
He said even attending court is sometimes too much for the officers after they have spent the night on duty.
“Imagine you work all night and you have to go to court in the morning and for whatever time that matter will be called, when you go to court, lawyers who are present will ask for their matters to be called first—if the person you charge does not have a lawyer, you have to wait until the magistrate is ready to call that matter because he/she will deal with all the lawyers’ matters first and then move on,” he said.
He said the length of time it takes to get case files ready also takes a toll on witnesses, who get “fed up” of waiting and refuse to testify. He said attorneys are aware of the challenges facing the officers and use every opportunity to call for their client’s charges to be dismissed.
“When they see the witnesses don’t come to court, the magistrate will make note of all of this and the prosecution is the one looking bad all this time. And the defence beating their chest and saying they were ready and the prosecution was not… the defence will always try to get matters dismissed.”
His colleague suggested a solution to the long wait for files to be approved before they can be handed over to prosecutors. He said, if files move from the complainant straight to the prosecutor, the time to get it prepared would be vastly decreased.
“I believe the justice system is too slow but the police can have a hand in fixing that, because the same way the file goes through all of these hands to get to the prosecutor, let the complainant liaise directly with the prosecutor because they would be familiar with the case, they would handling it directly in court and they have experience in court- more so than an ordinary corporal or sergeant who has no experience in the court itself.”
But in an interview with Guardian Media, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith dismissed this suggestion.
Griffith said he will not comment on the inner workings of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions but he knows the office was already overburdened.
“That is a cop-out, where instead of doing your job, you can’t be simply trying to run to the DPP, and burden them with enormous work when we are supposed to be doing our own proper investigation. I will not accept that as an excuse, by trying to run to the DPP to try to do our own work,” Griffith said.
Griffith said he has been working on getting officers to abide by their duties since he assumed office.
“It made absolutely no sense to have such a situation because it meant that all of the work done by the police officers to investigate, arrest and charge would be of no value and obviously the reason for us doing all that would be for persons to be incarcerated and rehabilitated.”
He said in 2020, there was an 80 per cent overall improvement in the number of police officers who showed up to court.
According to information from the Court and Process Branch of the TTPS, there were 1800 cases in 2019 where police officers failed to show up to court. There were only 340 cases in 2020.
“Last year, in a few of the divisions, there was a 90 to 95 per cent reduction in non-appearance, inclusive of Port- of- Spain and the North Eastern Divisions. Overall, it was an 80 per cent reduction,” Griffith said.
He said the officers are being made to account for their absenteeism and disciplined if their excuses are not valid.
“The reason why we were able to minimise to such a high number is that we were able to put systems in place so that every single time a police officer was absent and a case dismissed for non-appearance, the officer had to account for his non-appearance.”
Griffith said the Police Service has also started appointing substitute complainants to replace the primary complainants if they are unable to attend court, so the matter can continue without delay.