On August 22nd, 2011, Kamla Persad Bissessar announced a Limited State of Emergency.
At the beginning of the state of emergency, there were a variety of mis-steps and mis-communications. The PM declared the emergency before it was authorized by the President’s signature, and people felt that proper procedure was not followed. The two top cops, the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Police Commissioner, were out of the country, and only after beginning to direct police procedure was the Acting Commissioner of Police retroactively given power. People wondered if his initial orders had legal authority. Though it may not have seemed like major issues, this created a sense that things were not really thought through.
Two weeks into the state of emergency, rich and poor alike were terrified and horrified by the escalation of violent crime and gun related deaths over the last decade. There had been more than 250 murders for the year and citizens were already feeling trapped and powerless when reports of eleven killed, virtually overnight, hit the headlines. The state of emergency and a curfew were set between 9pm and 5am in selected ‘hot spot’ areas. Citizens hoped that the government could use this period to bring down gang and drug related activities, and return the nation to the days when ordinary living wasn’t defined by self-imposed curfews.
There were also conflicting reports from Cabinet. One Minister commented that the state of emergency was being planned for a long time. Yet, just days before the declaration, another had denied that there was any need for one. Passes were to be given to persons needing to be on the streets past 9pm, but it was unclear where or how these would be issued, and on what grounds, and naturally people eventually began to circulate their own photocopied versions. Even Kamla’s initial announcement of a ‘limited’ state of emergency led to days-long radio discussions about what ‘limited’ meant and whether it referred to geography, scope or duration. There was mass public confusion, though the government seemed to be clueless why.
Afro-Trinidadian representatives had spoken about the tragedy of seeing young, black men handcuffed by police, an image reminiscent of slave shackles and injustice by a racist, colonial regime. Indo-Trinidadians, represented by conservative male Hindu voices, had praised the government for finally acknowledging the fear that middle-classes and business people were living with.
Syrian-Trinidadian merchants in Port of Spain, who had long been calling for this measure, warned of the need to capture both the ‘little’ and ‘big’ fish in order for justice to be seen to be done. Poor and working class people, in areas that were targeted by police, used the media to cite security forces’ ethnic and class profiling and injustice. Their doors had been kicked in, their beds trampled upon and their houses searched by men with dogs and no legal responsibility to be polite, fair or reasonable. These groups wanted to see wealthy Syrian-, White- or Indo-Trinidadian businessmen, rumoured to be the wholesale drug traders, also arrested and paraded across the TV. Tobagonians had been worrying about the long-term impact on tourism and the effects of reduced travel on their own livelihoods, food supply and mobility.
The unions claimed that the SOE was put in place to surpress them and to curtail their activities in support of their wage increase demands. Public servants and police were in the middle of antagonistic negotiations with the government. Winston Dookeran, Minister of Finance, had been arguing that the government could not afford to increase wages by more than 5%. The unions disagreed and were planning a national strike. The state of emergency conveniently did what the unions were threatening to do and what the criminals had not quite accomplished. It shut down the country. The economic costs of the curfew now had to be added to those of crime and the unions’ collective bargaining, which would have resumed full force in weeks to come.
Despite the gun-slinging Attorney General’s gladiatorial approach, there had been daytime armed robberies and attempted kidnappings during that period. Many wondered if the criminals really were ‘on the run’ or if the majority were just resting until the curfew was lifted. Incomes in the legal, illegal and informal labour markets had been lost and some were looking to make ends meet however necessary. Knowing this, citizens were concerned and kept asking about the plan for after the period ended.
During this period, dozens of persons were arrested and held for an extended period under the Anti-Gang Act.
Most of these persons, however, were eventually released after their cases were reviewed by officials from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. It was noted that in most of these cases, persons were arrested by the police and military and charged under theAnti-Gang Act, without sufficient evidence to support the use of the bill, a blatant violation of human rights. In some cases, the SOE was used by some law enforcement agents to settle love vendettas.
In March 2018, David Williams, Ronald Cobham, Richard Weekes, Derek Miller, Jules Eligon, Kadeem Weekes, Kerwin Issac and Akiel Kareem Sherwood, became the latest persons to receive payments from the State.
A settlement was reached between the claimants (the eight men) and the State that if they withdrew their claims for malicious prosecution, the State would pay a total of $429,697.91 for the time they served.
In July 2018, PM Rowley said government had no plans for a State of Emergency although he acknowledged that the country is experiencing a ‘chronic crime wave’.
“We are not considering that at this time, we do not see it as an effective way of changing what is happening. A state of emergency will not necessarily give us the security that we are looking for. There’ll be negative developments on the economy and that would in itself create the environment for further growth of criminal conduct,” he said.
“We believe that…information on wrongdoing can be pursued without a state of emergency. A previous government held out to us in 2015 that a state of emergency was the panacea to crime. We know now that it did not in any way result in a reduction of the guns on the street or the gunmen who would use them,” he said.
He said government is focusing on a national security response including removing firearms from the street and preventing them from entering the country, as well as identifying persons engaging in criminal conduct.
Dr Rowley also slammed the ‘heinous’ acts on parts of criminals who have ‘added to the trauma that the nation is feeling’.
“...very heinous actions by citizens who have cold-bloodedly slaughtered others, endangered very many more and have added to the trauma that the nation is feeling, particularly those communities, those streets, those families who are experiencing this chronic crime wave, which has been affecting our country for the longest while,” he said.
“I want to give the country assurance that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago would be resolute in pursuing safety and security as a number one priority in Trinidad and Tobago.”
“It is difficult for the population to accept that, I know, because results have not been good, but we will not abdicate that responsibility and we will not settle,” he said.
Dr Rowley said government will continue to direct resources where they are needed and to press security officials to continue improvement in crime-solving.
“But I also know that if we do things differently, if we make better use of our resources and if we have more buy-in from the national population, that we as a country could get on top of this crime problem and solve it like other communities have done,” he said.