Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

Reporting by Rishard Khan and Raphael John-Lall

Gary Griffith’s bid to return as Commissioner of Police (CoP) and his fate in this situation remain in limbo as controversy continues to fester over the selection process, culminating in the resignation of the entire Police Service Commission (PSC), calls for the Attorney General’s head and a motion by the Opposition United National Congress to impeach the President. The motion, however, was defeated by the Electoral College on Thursday. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has also come under fire for the PSC/CoP fiasco.

Griffith, who was appointed CoP in 2018 and became the first substantive CoP since 2012 (after commissioner Dwayne Gibbs resigned), is perhaps one of the most polarising public figures in the country. He has been hailed a hero by his supporters but has also garnered the dislike and distrust of many in his three-year tenure.

And although polls among citizens have given him a high popularity rating, one of the most recent public additions to the list of those who weren’t pleased with Griffith as CoP is Dr Rowley. On October 16, Dr Rowley made a bombshell revelation–in 2020 he wrote to the then PSC chairman Bliss Seepersad saying he had lost confidence in Griffith as CoP.

Dr Rowley refrained from divulging any significant details at the press conference and again at a PNM political platform earlier this week where he only reasoned that he lost confidence in Griffith based on “his good judgment and understanding.”

Rowley, too, has been taken to task by some sections of the public for his statement.

But many are now wondering “What could have led the Prime Minister to lose confidence in the commissioner?” Was it a single incident or a series of concerns?

In the 2018 process to appoint a CoP, the PSC did not place Griffith in the number one position. In fact, he was fourth on the merit list. PM Rowley, leader of the PNM Government, however, invested his political capital in choosing Griffith as the candidate for the vacant post. This, according to criminologist and social researcher Daurius Figueira, was especially so, “given Griffith’s history of being the public face (as national security minister) for the People’s Partnership government’s agenda to dismantle the national security apparatus they inherited from the PNM, exemplified by the rejection of the Offshore Patrol Vessels.”

Figueira said the PNM in opposition and in the 2015 electoral campaign placed great emphasis on the national security failures of the PP government, but then embraced Griffith placing him in the said national security apparatus. To Figueira and large sections of the country, this was a contradiction. The PM was subsequently forced to offer public explanations justifying his action.

But two years after Griffith’s appointment, the PM wrote to the PSC expressing his loss of confidence in the CoP. This action was a blow to his political stocks, Figueira believes, as his investment of political capital in Griffith had clearly “backfired”.

“This has to be placed in the context of his public hints after the 2020 election victory that he was now wrapping up his political career which opened up the search for a new leader in that event. Then there was the THA election in January 2021, its tie and the need for a redo which signalled weakness in the heartland as the PM insisted in public on the importance politically of the two Tobago seats to PNM control of the State,” Figueira added.

Figueira told the Sunday Guardian Dr Rowley, however, acted within his remit as Prime Minister to communicate his concerns with the PSC.

“The PM has the power to indicate to the PSC and the Police Commissioner that he has lost confidence in the PC as this presents a threat to national security which only the PM is responsible for.

“We will never know the reality that formed the decision in 2020 but that is the prerogative of the PM and his alone, that is the reality of the order of power under our Constitution.”

The two men have clashed publicly since the start of the pandemic and this culminated with the PM calling Griffith to a meeting. The clash stemmed from a private party in west Trinidad. In September 2020, the PM called on the police to enforce the public health regulations equally after footage of a private pool party at Bayside Towers emerged on social media.

At that time, people attending parties along the Corridor and other parts of the country were being arrested for breach of the public health regulations.

“Persons who are partying and spreading this virus must feel the full brunt of the law in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s not for me to tell the commissioner who to arrest and how to arrest, but as Prime Minister, I could tell the Commissioner of Police that the law must apply to protect us in Trinidad and Tobago from those who are not prepared to listen,” Dr Rowley then said at a press conference.

However, Griffith fired back shortly after explaining publicly that police could not intervene in matters on private property because the law did not allow it.

“He (Rowley) needs to know his position as chair of the National Security Council, but he continues to make comments about policing and he doesn’t have that authority or knowledge because it’s the second time he has made the error. First, when he said the commissioner doesn’t have the authority to go into supermarkets and banks to try to close them down…then, he came and he did a Michael Jackson, moonwalked, and corrected himself, he’s doing the same thing again,” Griffith said then.

Following the meeting with the Prime Minister, Griffith held firm in his position on the law but apologised for how he responded.

“It was my right to clarify that misconception because I am not going to be bullied or pushed or pressured into doing anything that is illegal,” he said.

Many have speculated that this altercation catalysed the PM’s lack of confidence in Griffith.

A clash in personalities

The speculation isn’t without merit. Political analyst Dr Winford James said one of the major signs of turbulence between the Prime Minister and CoP was Griffith saying that the office of the CoP is an independent one and no one can “summon” him to a meeting.

“Gary Griffith made it clear that his office is an independent one. I agree with that. The Prime Minister himself said complainingly that he cannot instruct the police. He tried to summon Griffith to a meeting to which Griffith said was improper. The question is what should be the relationship between the two offices. It is clear that the Constitution intended separation of what people do.”

James believes there was a clash in personalities. He believes the problems between the Prime Minister and the CoP is not necessarily because of the present personalities and officeholders, but T&T and the rest of the Caribbean have Prime Ministers with “autocratic” tendencies.

“Given the autocratic nature of the prime ministerial rule, given the brashness and fearlessness of the previous CoP, it is not unreasonable to speculate that they may have had differences of opinion along the way. There may have been some differences on how to police the COVID restrictions as the matter in Bayside seem to have suggested.”

Power struggle

Political scientist Dr Bishnu Ragoonath, meanwhile, felt there was no specific event in the public domain that led to the fracture in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the former CoP. However, in retrospect, he said some incidents could be interpreted that there was a tenseness in the relationship. The Bayside incident being one of them.

“Clearly Griffith was saying things that suggest that he was not toeing the line that the Prime Minister may have wanted him to toe. Griffith had stated that notwithstanding that Petrotrin and AV Drilling had come to some agreement, that did not preclude him to continue his investigations as to whether AV Drilling had done something. I don’t know that those were some of the issues that would have allowed the Prime Minister to lose confidence. Although I cannot specifically say why,” Ragoonath added.

He believes that the controversy over the appointment of a new CoP was a result of a “power struggle” between Dr Rowley and Griffith.

“It ended up in some people’s court, it ended up in the court of the PSC, it ended up in the court of the President, and all of them being collateral damage. Because they all got taken into what was taking place between the Prime Minister and the then CoP. They got caught in the crossfire,” he said.

Ragoonath too reiterated that Griffith was number four on the merit list when he was appointed to the position of CoP in August 2018. But he felt it was a good political move for the Government at that time as Griffith was popular and it gave the public the impression that the Government had a grip on the crime situation.

He concluded that the maelstrom will have negative consequences in society.

“For the ordinary man on the street, they would like to know where does the security of T&T lies. They want to know if there is strong leadership in the T&T Police Service to arrest the crime situation people are afraid of. There are also economic problems as a result of the closure of businesses and rising unemployment. People are concerned about all these things. This does not help the country.”

National security concerns?

Figueira questioned whether certain incidents, which may not be placed in the public domain by the officeholders, may have impacted to create the current PM/CoP imbroglio.

*He said from April to June 2021 events unfolded which indicated the existence of transnational organised crime (TOC) pipelines moving illicit arms, ammunition and other material from the USA and its territories to T&T. This TOC pipeline was active and large enough to attract the attention of the US Federal State, the US Department of State given the geopolitical interest of the North Atlantic in T&T. “The arms, ammunition and material shipment interdicted at Piarco, Trinidad, on information supplied by the US agencies indicated the intent to outfit a militia in T&T whose only intention was to destabilise T&T with an armed insurgency,” he added.

*This intent was further revealed with the interdiction in June of a cache of arms, ammunition, plastique and detonators buried outside the walls of the Maximum Security Prison at Arouca.

“Did the agencies of the US Department of State brief the PM as to the nature of this TOC arms trafficking pipeline stressing the involvement of people in possession of FULs and FDLs in this pipeline, stressing the need for immediate action with failure to do so having the TTPS face sanctions by the USA?” Figueira questioned.

“In 2013,” he said, “the US Department of State imposed sanctions of the Royal St Lucia Police Force which were modified only in 2021 but not totally removed.”

He said these realities will never be placed in the public domain but must be considered and factored into the events presently under debate in T&T.

The missing merit list

The Prime Minister has come under fire for the CoP debacle after Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar alleged he secretly met with President Paula-Mae Weekes and the then PSC chairman on August 12 at President’s House to discuss the merit list for the position of acting CoP. Dr Rowley has since denounced the allegations.

There are speculations that this meeting resulted in the President not submitting the names of the candidates selected by the PSC for the CoP post to the Parliament. The Opposition has since asked the Prime Minister, President and former PSC chairman to confirm who was the public official at President’s House. This failure was one of the key drivers of the Opposition’s motion to remove President Weekes.

President Weekes remained silent on the collapse of the PSC, the controversy surrounding the appointment of a new CoP, and calls to say who was the office-holder. But after numerous calls from prominent attorneys, criminologists and political scientists for her to address the public, as they said she has a moral obligation to do, she finally broke her silence last Sunday. However, even though President Weekes did so, she did not address the question put to her by the Opposition Leader about the visit. Addressing her failure to submit the merit list, she said it reached her office on August 11. However, she said it was rescinded hours later which meant she could not submit the list to Parliament for consideration.

“I assure the nation that neither the OTP nor I participated in, allowed or encouraged any attempted or actual improper interference, influence or breach of the principle of separation of powers in the operation of the PSC in the matter of the Commissioner of Police,” a release from the President said.

Figueira questioned, “Did the merit list for the post of Police Commissioner place Griffith at number one in spite of the letter the PM sent to the PSC in 2020?”

He said if yes, “then there is no proof of political interference in an independent agency under the Constitution.”

But he questioned, “What then is this national security matter of grave importance that merited the withdrawal of the list and the need to appoint an acting police commissioner which was Griffith, to then place his appointment in stasis until such time thereafter the national security issue was settled?”It was clear, he said, “the PSC was not acting lucidly in appreciation of the gravity of this issue.”

Power in the hands of the PM

Figueira acknowledged that while the process to appoint a CoP is independent, the PM still has a considerable say.

“It is the majority that the PM commands in the Parliament appoints the PC, not the masses. The buck then stops with him. The PM has the power to disagree with the manner in which a PC is applying the policy for the TTPS formulated by the Government and to publicly disagree with policy articulated publicly by the PC that is in contradiction with government policy for the TTPS,” he told Sunday Guardian.

James said it was this power Dr Rowley attempted to communicate to the PSC with his letter.

“Why did he do that? The only answer I can give is that the Prime Minister wanted to influence the decision-making by the Police Service Commission. He is Prime Minister and there is an impression that he can give…He does not appoint the members of the Commission.”

He said only when the merit list reaches Parliament to be debated, the Government can use its majority to vote for whomever they prefer as CoP. Outside of that, the Government should not interfere in the process.

Figueira believes the PSC did its job but contributed to the debacle when it sent Griffith on leave over its ongoing investigations into alleged corruption in the Firearm User’s Licence process.

“From what is in the public domain the PSC did their duty by completing a merit list and sent it off to the President which they were required to do. We entered the minefield with the withdrawal the same day of the merit list, and the appointment of Gary Griffith as acting PC, then sending him on leave because of a national security issue which they chose to investigate having no security clearance to do so effectively and legally,” he said.

“The PSC exceeded its remit when it did so as on a national security issue they have no locus standi, and since they don’t hire without the command of the person who commands the majority in Parliament, can they fire without the command of the person who commands the majority in Parliament?

“The PSC took action without realisation of the order of power they were dealing with that impacted the post of PC, they treated it as an average post governed by industrial relations jurisprudence when it is not.”

Figueira concluded that there is a need for constitutional reform, an Official Secrets Act, and a Homeland Security Act.

“But in the gridlock of the politics of race stasis, inertia rule,” he said.

Legal Notice 183 of 2021

The Opposition and respected public figures have been calling for the head of AG Al-Rawi for the convoluted PSC/CoP mess and said he must be held to account for Legal Notice 183 (2021).

The commentators believe it was a poorly drafted piece of legislation that appeared to compromise the selection process for a commissioner of police.

Prof Ramesh Deosaran had said there was a political and moral obligation for the PM and the AG to account for inserting the notice he labelled “suspicious” and “confusing”.

In June, the Government issued Legal Notice 183 of 2021 which allowed Griffith to continue in the role as acting CoP until the selection process was completed and the CoP could be appointed.

On October 14, High Court Judge Nadia Kangaloo upheld an interpretation lawsuit from social activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj, in which Maharaj claimed that the PSC needed the approval of the House of Representatives to make acting and substantive appointments for the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Commissioners of Police (DCPs). Striking down paragraph 4, the ruling effectively invalidated the acting appointment given to Griffith. Balgobin was represented by attorney Anand Ramlogan, SC.

Gary’s conundrum

*On the day before the PM declared he had lost confidence in Griffith, October 15, the Police Complaints Authority issued a release stating that it had completed its investigation into the treatment of suspects in the kidnapping and murder of Andrea Bharatt while in custody in February.

The PCA found that while in the custody of SORT officers, the suspects—Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris—were “the subject of torture,” with two of the individuals being the subjects of acts of violence that led to their deaths.

It submitted its findings to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, then-­acting Commissioner of Police and the Ministry of National Security.

*Shortly after entering the CoP’s office, Griffith launched his brainchild–SORT, the Special Operations Response Team. The team’s members, which included former soldiers, were hand-picked by the commissioner to tackle elaborate criminal operations. In April, ASP Mark Hernandez, who headed SORT, was charged with misbehaviour in public office as it related to the deaths of Balcon and Morris. He was then removed from his position as head of SORT, and replaced by Supt Roger Alexander.

*On Wednesday night, Christian Chandler who headed a revamped legal unit under Griffith at the CoP’s office was detained with three Special Reserve Police officers. The arrests arose out of an incident aboard Chandler’s yacht off the Chaguaramas coast on August 5.

Chandler had proceeded on leave on August 16 pending the outcome of an investigation into the matter. On Friday he was slapped with five criminal charges arising out of the incident.

PCA complaints

*One of the areas that Griffith’s tenure as commissioner has come under intense scrutiny is police-related killings.

While SORT’s successes were lauded by many, the unit faced severe criticism from some for its alleged involvement in several fatal police shootings.

During 2019-2020, there was a surge in police killings. There were 66 fatal police shootings and 31 non-fatal police shootings–the most recorded in the previous eight annual reports.

*On June 27, 2020, came, arguably, the commissioner’s biggest test when three men–Israel Clinton, Joel Jacobs, and Noel Diamond–were allegedly shot by police in Morvant. When that footage of the shooting went public, protests erupted across Port-of-Spain. It appeared in the CCTV footage that the men were shot with their hands in the air. The officers, at the scene, maintained they were shot at first.

The claims of extrajudicial killings sparked widespread outrage–roads and the Beetham Highway were blocked, gunshots were fired, while protesters marched through the capital city. Then, during protests in Sea Lots, a pregnant mother, Ornella Greaves was killed. Relatives claimed she was shot by an officer, but police denied the claim, saying there was no evidence to prove that theory.

The protests lasted for three days. In the end, more than 70 people were arrested.

The PCA called for more than a dozen officers involved to be suspended, but the officers were placed on administrative duty/leave. The incident continues to be investigated by the PCA.

*DSS–In September 2020, SORT officers raided the popular Drugs Sou-Sou operation in La Horquetta. Police initially seized $22 million, but the money was given back hours later. Investigations revealed there were police and defence force officers involved in the alleged illegal scheme.

Days after the raid, the operation faced public scrutiny after videos were leaked allegedly showing a member of the team stuffing evidence, allegedly money, into his bulletproof vest. The video placed Griffith on the backfoot.

Although it was a SORT operation, he insisted the accused was not a police officer, but a defence force member. In October 2020, police raided the operation again. They seized more than $7 million in cash, as well as documents and electronics. Four officers were suspended, while 11 others were transferred.

DSS founder Keron Clarke was later charged with two counts of money laundering in early 2021.