This country has a long and chequered history with elite police units so there may not be much public confidence in the National Operational Task Force (NOTF) which will take the place of the disgraced and disbanded Special Operations Response Team (SORT) in a few days.
The 48-member squad, to be headed by Supt Oswain Subero the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), while former SORT head Snr Supt Roger Alexander oversee operations, will like its predecessor comprise soldiers and police officers.
It will be the support and tactical law enforcement arm of the National Operations Fusion Centre (NOFC) responsible for “preparation, prevention, response and recovery from acts of terrorism and other serious crimes of national significance.”
However, its success will depend on how quickly it can shake off the negative perceptions it is bound to inherit, not only from SORT but other specialist law enforcement units that have operated in this country.
The earliest version of an elite unit within the T&T Police Service was the Flying Squad which comprised officers hand-picked by former police commissioner Randolph Burroughs. Those officers operated as a law unto themselves, answerable to only Burroughs and although their crime-fight exploits earned them folk-hero status, they were eventually brought down by the Scott Drug Report.
Of more recent vintage, the Special Anti-Crime Unit of T&T (SAUTT) established in 2003 during the Patrick Manning administration under the command of Brig Peter Joseph, was widely criticised for being illegally constituted and operating as a parallel police force.
Officers assigned to SAUTT were equipped with the best weaponry, vehicles and technology and were well paid. Their assignments included dealing with kidnapping for ransom, extortion, gang warfare, organised crime, and terrorism.
But the unit was disbanded by Kamla Persad-Bissessar People’s Partnership government because it was felt it was not producing results to justify the millions spent to keep it operational. Members of the unit were also accused of spying on political opponents of the PNM.
SORT, set up in November 2018 by former police commissioner Gary Griffith, was designed like the defunct SAUTT as a specialised task force used for high-risk operations.
But reports quickly surfaced of abuse against citizens and questionable actions by officers, most notably video footage of a SORT officer stuffing cash into his uniform during a raid at the home of Drugs Sou Sou operator Kerron Clarke in September 2020.
The unit’s death knell was sounded when SORT officers were implicated in the deaths of two men detained for questioning in the murder of Arima court clerk Andrea Bharatt, then former head Mark Hernandez was charged with misbehaviour in public office.
Acting Police Commissioner McDonald Jacob may be hoping for a seamless transition to the NOTF.
Given this country’s long-standing crime problem, there is a need for a well-organised elite unit of officers specially trained in highly dangerous national security assignments.
The NOFT can be useful and effective if the officers recruited for this specialist squad operate with restraint and professional discipline. Care should be taken to select personnel, whether from law enforcement or military backgrounds, with extensive training that covers an extensive range including behavioural psychology and non-violent techniques.
The mistakes made with the Flying Squad, SAUTT and SORT must be avoided at all costs.