Police Commissioner Gary Griffith during an interview on Friday.

On Saturday, June 29, 2000, a month short of the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup of 1990, the police shot dead three suspected criminals in Morvant. The community called it police assassination, an act of vengeance for the murder of police officer Allen Mosely hours earlier.

Three days of rioting followed in hot spot communities.

In this exclusive interview for the Sunday Guardian with IRA MATHUR, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith denies the charge of police brutality and reveals that the last four administrations have repeatedly funded criminal elements which fuels the crime spree. He said Government has begun working with the police to vet state contracts that support the operation of criminal gangs which hold the country hostage.

Griffith believes that rather than being regularly chastised, every police officer deserves a medal for equally being in the COVID-19 front line and defending the country from what could have easily been an insurgency of the magnitude of 1990 by gangs. Griffith said the 1990 coup attempt which took seven days to crush then, would have, under his watch today, taken seven minutes.

You suggested in your address to the nation following the three days of riots that you have averted something akin to 1990. What was the endgame of the rioters?

Criminal gangs wanted to take over the country, to loot, to destroy Port-of-Spain, using George Floyd as a smokescreen. The riots were part of an orchestrated plan, a major criminal operation, of 40 simultaneous hits by gang leaders armed with dozens of assault rifles to block roads, debris, burn tyres, destroy property, loot and shoot the police. It’s better organised than the 1990 coup attempt where only three locations were targeted. Two major gangs mobilised hundreds of people. Hundreds more were trying to enter the city. Hundreds of others would have joined. We tear-gassed and sent them back.

How was the policing different from 1990?

What took seven days to defeat the insurrection in 1990 should have taken seven minutes. In 1990 there was poor intelligence gathering. Many police officers were abandoning posts; the police stations were empty. The absence of that front-line defence caused widespread looting. I was the youngest officer in the Defence Force during the coup attempt.

My officers today are highly motivated, trained in counter-revolutionary warfare. We circumvented this uprising by sharing information across the police units, including defence, SIU and special branch.

We shared information between us within seconds and three-four hours before the event. I mobilised the operational command centre, real-time video footage, informants which allowed us to make a pre-emptive strike. There are GPS and dashboard cameras on all vehicles, so we saw what’s happening in real time. We are fully computerised, with revamped 999 systems, laptops and GPS systems. As soon as the incidents took place, within minutes, we were able to disperse and arrest lawbreakers, remove debris, shut down their plans. They would have repeated 1990 to shoot the police and loot. There was no need to bring in the army in the front line. The police did it all. The gangs were outmanned and outgunned.

Were the three killings in Morvant a police execution? Did we just have a George Floyd moment or was it something else?

I welcome the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) standards, as they ensure transparency…and clear my officers of wrongdoing. We introduced DNA swabbing, so 20 more murders were solved this month than in previous years.

I can’t speak of ongoing investigations, but I will say you cannot justify planning to kill police officers, destabilise a country and plan to loot because of your perception of the police doing something you don’t like. No street must belong to any criminal element. When police officers drop tools and back off we will end up like Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia where criminals have full control. I have told my officer to stand up and fight. But within the law. I will continue to defend my officers. I am not going to make any decisions based on popularity, but what is right and within the law.

What are the preliminary findings of the police shootings under investigation?

I cannot comment on that investigation until it is complete. As much as I tell my officers to stand up and fight and defend our country, it must be done within the law. The PCA will ensure accountability. We discipline and fire officers charged with serious crimes and ensure they protect our population within the law and proportionately, first with the use of pepper spray and increasingly with body cameras, drug testing etc.

Do you believe that your “one shot, one kill” statement has emboldened police officers and contributed to this steep rise in police killings?

In the past five years, there were 527 shootings at police officers, over a hundred a year. A police officer is shot every four days. There was no concern when a police officer who is defending the country from criminals had his head blown off. Just as there was no uprising after a two year old and a 17-year-old girl was killed by gangs. Is it that police lives don’t matter? That innocent citizens’ lives don’t matter? There is a greater concern of 43 people killed by police criminal elements who shot at my on-duty police officers. How can that be of greater concern than the lives of 538 law-abiding citizens who were killed by criminals last year? Some years back in Chaguanas, gangs shot at police for three hours and the police didn’t respond. That’s what we see in Jamaica where certain streets belong to criminals. Cold-blooded criminals are killing law-abiding citizens and police officers. I have stopped that, and they are upset. They are trying to get the police to back down. We will not back down. I intend to continue to fight. It is a war out there. A lynch mob. I told my police officers to stand up and defend yourself. They risked their lives to prevent criminals from taking control and destabilising the country. I had to stand firm and not satisfy people who demanded blood.

You want to be judged on the murder rate, yet it is not significantly lower. What are you up against? Why aren’t you winning against the criminal cartel?

When I ask people ask to judge me on the murder rate, consider our justice system for a start. It is so flawed that a man held for carrying ten assault rifles is fined $5,000 and bailed out the next day, released back out to the killing fields to kill 30 more people a year and given multi-million-dollar contracts to do so. In other countries, that is considered treason. This is war. One concept of war is to cut the logistic and financial support and weaken the enemy in the front line.

The last four administrations have repeatedly funded criminal elements. Contracts are given out by the Government bodies to fend off sabotage of government projects or due to intimidation or harassment of government officials by armed gangs.

I confronted the previous government, of which I was a part, about this with Life Sport, which was given $400 million. They use government funds to buy more firearms, hire more gang members, use the profit and capital for drugs, put hits on rival gangs. Some government officials have a close relationship with criminals. We know who they are.

From August 2018 to 2019 the murder rates dropped. We arrested those who need to be arrested, but if they are put back out to killing fields to kill again, $5,000 sentence for firearm bail by politicians, activists and the justice system, that is not my fault. When they can still make calls to kill others, it can’t be the fault of the Police Service.

We also saw a 15-30 per cent reduction of all violent crimes, rapes, armed robbery, kidnapping, which reflects our policing.

Who are these gang leaders?

Some of these criminal gang leaders are brilliant young men with an excellent concept of business, structure, organisational chart, the ability to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to build their empires. They have built homes worth more in real estate in Sea Lots, Beetham than half the community they live in. They build palaces in low-income areas, an empire with expensive cars, swimming pools, imported furniture and fittings, security guards, surrounded by slums, and parade like modern-day Robin Hoods with gold chains from their necks to their stomachs. It’s not a gang culture, it’s a gang cult, a community based on fear and handing out scraps.

They use tens of millions from state contracts to filter into the legal system, buy out people in the justice system, attorneys, rogue police officers. The latter tip off criminals before operations and contaminate evidence. Many attorneys defend the same criminals I put in prisons. So if my job is to make life difficult for their clients, they will discredit me. They call for bail for people holding assault rifles with a $500 fine instead of 15 years in prison. Before I arrived, the homicides were over 500, but had we not done what was required the number of dead would be astronomical, closer to 800.

Is this Government changing that at all? Why not go after them?

Some contracts are given unknowingly. With others, officials have little choice. Faced with intimidation or sabotage for a project in a hot spot area, they know the only way it will be completed is by giving a gang member a contract. If anyone else goes in they are harassed or forced to pay protection money which escalates the cost of projects. Government is being held hostage by criminals.

There is a difference between intelligence and evidence. Civil Asset Forfeiture is a critical tool; if I can’t get them on carrying

arms, I can get them on finance. You cannot be unemployed and can’t account for it. If I can’t get them one way, I intend to get them on financing by asking them to explain their wealth. Three weeks back, I met heads of SWMCOL, URP, CEPEP, HDC and the POS and Diego Martin Regional and Eastern corporations. These are the main avenues for criminal contracts. The contracts will now come to the police before approval. They will give police all the names, and we will advise them– protect legitimate contractors. We intend to cripple crime enterprise that gets wealth and buy arms through the Government.

Is the anti-gang legislation helping break up gangs?

No, it is soft, watered down. Activists and the Opposition is blocking stronger legislation saying it’s going to affect our fundamental rights…if we put laws like that they will call it draconian.

When the Opposition was in government, those carrying a small sidearm firearm were held without bail. Five years later, they are calling for bail for someone with an assault rifle.

We need to go after criminal enterprise, funds, shut down state contracts, recover firearms and send them to jail for 15 years. We have arrested 5,000 people in the last few years and there are 500 main shooters, so we arrest the same shooter over and over again and they go back on the streets. If they are given a 15-year sentence, they can’t kill and the rate go down by half. We arrest them, and you send them back out and then blame the police for the high murder rate.

Today (Friday, July 10), you have received another death threat, how afraid are you?

I’ve received about 30 death threats from the 400-strong criminal cartel in Trinidad sometimes once a month. The day these threats stop, I will be concerned because it would mean I am not doing my job. Having come from the military, I understand I am expendable. I am not going to sit in a tower and be protected and popular and not do the right thing. If doing the right thing puts life on the line, so be it. I hope whoever takes over also does the right thing if that happens. My officers are drained, from Carnival to COVID to riots to preparing for a generation election. Just a thank you from the public and media will go a long way to lift morale. No one has thanked the police even though their ratings are up. The popularity of the police moved from 14 to 30 per cent, mine goes between 76-85. The country is starting to believe in the Police Service I must keep morale up, stand firm and defend those under my command. I will take a hit for my police officers. I have served in the army as a politician and cop. My life is on the line. I could be here in 2024 or not. When I work, every citizen is my boss.