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Protect and serve without bias

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Over a week has passed since the rescue of 49-year-old Natalie Pollonais; her five-day ordeal came to an end last Monday when a “clinical extraction” liberated her from her captors. In a short press conference following the successful operation, Commissioner Gary Griffith revealed that it was the result of careful intelligence gathering and the utilisation of several branches of the protective services. This served as a validation of sorts for the newly-appointed commissioner, who has made the bold promise that citizens should expect to see a measurable reduction in crime over the coming year. Despite being off to a good start, I can’t help but wonder if the victim’s race and socioeconomic status was the main reason why the police service was so motivated to find her as quickly as they did.

I know—it sounds cruel and insensitive. And I highly doubt the comment will be well-received by the Pollonais family. Let me be clear that it is in no way intended to minimise the ordeal that Mrs Pollonais and her family were forced to endure. But, believe me, I’m not the only person asking this question. As the “missing notices” were circulating on social media, some users had taken to discussing why this particular victim engendered so much attention. The prevailing sentiment was that all the stops were being pulled out because it was a “rich white woman”. And, furthermore, had it been a “regular” citizen who was abducted, neither the public, the media, nor the police force would have shown much interest, and the chances of them being “clinically extracted” would have been slim to none. Is there any truth to this?

Comparisons are being made to 34-year-old Ria Sookdeo, who was kidnapped on September 22, 2016. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since and the investigation into her whereabouts has gone cold. Unfortunately, she is just one of the dozens of citizens who have literally disappeared without a trace. These persons get a quick mention on the nightly news, a short write-up in the papers, and are then quickly forgotten by the national community. Their families are left desperately hoping, clinging to the faintest possibility that they will see their loved ones again. The Pollonais family is one of the lucky ones. But they are the exception, not the norm.

Now one can make the argument that the kidnapping of Pollonais incurred special interest because it involved rogue elements of the police force. This is a persistent problem that has been addressed ad nauseam, with even Commissioner Griffith going on record in stating that he intends to root them out. But corruptibility aside, the competency of the TTPS has been sorely lacking, especially in the last two decades when the crime rate exploded. The reality is such that we’ve learnt not to expect much from the organisation, going so far as to doubt its investigative methods as well as the sense of dedication of its members.

Just look at the tragic and mysterious case of Akiel Chambers, the 11-year-old boy who was sexually assaulted and murdered at a birthday party in May 1998. DNA evidence was recovered, witness statements were taken, a list of the attendees was made available to the authorities, and yet not a single arrest was ever made. According to the Homicide Bureau, that case is closed; no justice for young Akiel and the Chambers family, not to mention that a paedophile and murderer got away scot-free.

What about the murder of 14-year-old Joshua Andrews, the Laventille student who was shot and burned to death in January of this year. Or De-Neil Smith and Mark Richards, two more students from that improvised and crime-plagued neighbourhood who were callously murdered, execution-style, back in January 2016. Where was the outpouring of concern and the attention from the national community? Where was the massive investigation and police manhunt to find the perpetrators? Did anyone even care about these young black boys in the first place?

This is why the resolution of the Natalie Pollonais kidnapping could turn out to be a double-edged sword for Commissioner Griffith. While it does show that he means business, he also faces the burden of correcting the public perception that some cases—which is to say—some lives… seem to matter more than others. The fates of Ria Sookdeo, Akiel Chambers and the Laventille trio are no less important and thus deserve no less attention. So I could care less if the members of the TTPS are protecting and serving “with pride”, I want them to protect and serve all the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago—equally and without bias.


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