It was just after midday on July 14 when a water vendor was shot in the head on Broadway in Port-of-Spain, in clear view of many making their way in and around the capital city.
Two weeks later, a man was shot dead and three others wounded one afternoon during the month-end rush on the corners of Queen and George Streets.
One of the victims, a vendor, was shot in the leg and hand and is still hospitalised.
More recently, last Saturday, gunmen opened fire on three men at The Residence nightclub in Woodbrook, a popular weekend party spot. It is just a feet away from the Police Academy.
Brazen killings like these have left many in the population feeling unsafe not only in the capital city but across Trinidad and Tobago.
“You see where I is, if I only hear bow (gunshot sound) I could run through here,” one woman said as she limed at a rum shop at the corner of George and Queen Streets yesterday.
“I don’t feel safe anywhere,” Eva said while walking in Port-of-Spain.
“I want to get something, I come in town and I go back home,” Sylvester Richards added.
They said criminals just don’t care about the police, witnesses, or even potential victims.
“If the law is not being enforced, criminals are aware of that and they will do a lot of stuff that they know they could do and get away with it,” Frederick Street vendor Sanjay said.
“The criminals free, they could do what they want because them riding the system too,” another woman added.
According to Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob, combating crime is not only the police’s job but he said they are doing their best.
“We always look at what the police is doing now. What the police is doing now is to ensure to increase our presence. We are doing patrols to decrease our response time so that we can, in fact, investigate matters more effectively, we can be ready to go to court when matters occur.
“We are doing the hard law enforcement and we doing a lot of the community work, trying to ensure that the gangs cannot recruit young people,” he explained.
Jacob said anytime the main focus is only on what police are doing, the country will lose its battle against the criminals.
Guns empower criminals
However, the Acting Commissioner said one of the reasons for the boldness of and descent into criminality could be the psychology of firearm possession.
He explained that this is when an individual has a deadly weapon like a submachine gun, AR-15 or an AK-47 in his hands. Jacob said he may be trained to use it but he’s not trained like a law enforcement officer on how to manage it.
“It takes a young man, who may be a child, make him feel like he’s a man...They may be of the opinion that they can take on anyone because of that weapon in his hand,” Jacob said.
He said the type of weapons the criminals have in their possession empowers them and he blames this on the rapid increase in guns entering this country.
“When they hold this weapon, they feel now that they are a giant, they are invincible, our data have shown that a lot of these high-powered weapons, illegal ones from when we trace it, is coming from North America,” he said.
Jacob said these areas are Miami, Texas and Baltimore. He said the T&T Police Service has taken 392 weapons off the streets for the year so far and 60 were high-powered guns.
Criminologist Dr Malisa Neptune-Figaro agreed with the acting commissioner’s statement about the psychology of guns. She said firearms are an order of superiority in the criminal world, where it’s easily accessible.
“Guns and firearms have made young people feel like if something happens to me I can protect myself with a gun,” she said, adding she was told this when she toured depressed communities.
However, Dr Neptune-Figaro believes a lot of the weapons also come from Venezuela.
“What I don’t like is that guns have become such a norm and we haven’t been able to decrease the number of guns circulating in our population,” she added.
Guardian Media asked a “community leader,” who we will not identify, where the guns are coming from. His response was “places that they trust, the places that the Government trust.”
He said the police’s aim is to get all the guns off the streets but he said that cannot happen.
“If a person lost a gun today, they can get another one tomorrow,” he added.
Uptick in brazen killings?
Jacob said the brazen killings are not new and have been happening in the last few years. He attributed the footage many have seen on social media to more citizens installing cameras to protect themselves.
Jacob said this has become the case since in the last five years, the murder count has been above 350 annually, which is the number of murders for 2022 so far.
In 2017, there were 495 murders, in 2018 - 517; in 2019 - 536; in 2020 - 393 and in 2021, 448 people were killed.
“Because of the increase in situational crime prevention measures, which one is CCTV being placed by private citizens, a lot of these things are being picked up and put on social media,” Jacob said.
Jacob encouraged citizens to continue taking these measures. Another factor behind the boldness of criminals, the acting Commissioner said, could be the failing of the Bail Amendment Bill, or the fact that all murder accused can now seek bail.
“There is no study done up to this point to see how the persons involved in crime feel about that,” he said.
However, Jacob added that bail for murder has indirectly weakened the Witness Protection Programme and the police have to make adjustments so people can feel safe coming forward.
Dr Neptune-Figaro said she has not done the research to determine if there has been an increase in brazen killings but said it has spread geographically.
“We are more aware of it,” she said.
‘No deterrent in
the justice system’
Another element to the bold killings being seen in T&T for some is the lack of deterrence by the criminal justice system.
According to attorney Lee Merry, the criminal justice system is in “complete shambles.”
Merry said there is a lack of accountability when it comes to all players in the judicial system.
“None of the players in the Criminal Justice System are made to account for their performance, nor are they made to account when misdeeds are committed,” he said.
He said police officers fail to appear in court and he even questioned the work rate of magistrates and judges. Merry said only by measuring these things will plans, policies, and procedures be made to try and increase efficiency across the Judicial System.
The community leader sanctioned Merry’s statements. He said the police, lawyers, and other components of law enforcement need to be ethical.
“The country have to come together you can’t call me, you can’t call the people on the streets, you have to call people who in the service the law, the lawyers who representing these men if the lawyers stand up firm and say boy we not representing you when you get in trouble because you on too much sh*t, you feel he going and do what he doing,” he said.
Some quarters of the population has long since questioned if the police are part of the crime problem in the country. Only yesterday, two police officers were held and charged for alleged misbehaviour in public office.
For one former prisoner, some rouge elements in the police service contribute to the killings as well. When brazen murders occur there are some who ask ‘where were the police?’
The ex-prisoner claimed there have been instances where officers cleared the area for the crime to take place.
“The boss call the police link he have...’Oh boss clear of that street nah, I wah make a pass’. Later on or the next day that police link going and pass an check the boss gets lil money, laugh and talk about how it play off an then he back to work and try to kill the shooters’ name who they saying do it,” he explained.
The community leader also spoke about certain officers dropping alleged gang members into warring communities. The acting commissioner quashed this theory, saying it is hardly likely since officers have to give reports and if something is found wrong in their explanation they can be charged departmentally, but acknowledged anything can happen.
“I cannot doubt anything because we are dealing with human beings,” Jacob said.
A softer solution to curb crime
But one thing the acting commissioner, criminologist, attorney and community leader all agreed on is that alleviating crime cannot be done by honest officers alone.
The community leader said those in authority should aim to help and uplift people in depressed communities because “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
He requested a meeting with those in authority to show the work he plans on doing with the young ones in his community as he said not everyone in these depressed areas encourages criminality.
“The system have no way for a man to come out and change...that is how he is,” he said.
The community leader said if the police get to know the mentality of people involved in crime - see who wants change or improve or who wants war - then they can deal with them accordingly.
The community leader said approaching them in a brash manner will not alter the situation.
“If you want something solved on the Beetham or Diego Martin, if you want to quiet a situation in these communities you have to send 10,000 police but it will only take one man to stop everything,” he explained.
He said if those in authority continue to give them box drains to build that’s what they will think they’re worth.
Dr Neptune-Figaro said that during her visit to a depressed community recently she learned that residents were affected by geographic and economic issues.
“What he expressed you know with the boundary lines it gives them very limited opportunities,” she said.
She said some of these residents don’t want to join gangs or commit crimes but there were no other opportunities.
“When you come out of jail after murder, where you getting work?” the community leader asked.
The acting commissioner noted that the police had several outreach programmes and Police Youth Clubs to reach residents of these communities but Dr Neptune-Figaro said even when they learn a trade or a course they cannot access work.
“The police cannot solely resolve that issue,” she said.
The community leader, the CoP and the criminologist all believe that curbing crime will take an all-hands-on-deck approach.