By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 22, 2022
A call to my great-nephew, Devon La Touche, library assistant at Beetham Gardens Community Library (BGCL) and the Joint Community Service Center in Gonzales, on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, led to two informative days.
Devon looks after young students who visit the library to use the internet and play internet games. Before doing so, they must read for half an hour. Their anxiety about accessing computers is such that they happily do their reading just to access computers. Adults rarely visit the library.
When I called Devon, he had a session with about 28 students. They were playing PlayStation games, board games and doing coloring activities. The enthusiasm of the students was such that I too was delighted by the joy I heard in his voice and in the voices of the students.
I asked if I could visit him in the library to see what the students were doing and get a better idea of the physical and social environment. He said he would be delighted if I visited him, but informed me that I should write a letter to Oswain Subero, Chief Superintendent of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), so that the police could provide me the necessary security. I did it early Wednesday morning because a power outage prevented me from sending the letter the night before.
I showed up at the library on Wednesday morning and was greeted by Insp Ian Charles, a warm and humble brother. He informed me that Devon hadn’t arrived yet, but invited me to take a seat in the library.
Corporal Kevin Romany was also in the office. They told me what the IATF was doing in Beetham Gardens, Sea Lots and, by extension, in the East Port of Spain area.
The IATF had implemented several programs to improve the lives of young people in the region (netball competitions, parenting programs, youth mentoring programs and TTA youth camp, basketball coaching, etc.).
While these young people enjoyed the sporting aspects of the programs, they were less interested in the educational and cultural aspects. Although some of them did well in the SEA and CXC exams, many were ashamed of their illiteracy and were reluctant to expose this shortcoming to their peers.
There is a huge lack of self-esteem among young people. Romany explained that their environment creates a “cognitive perception” of inadequacy that seems to hold them back. Peer pressure has added many negative influences that have led to many antisocial behaviors, such as smoking and gambling, which are reinforced by poor parenting habits.
These officers were particularly proud of their “Hearts and Minds” program, launched in 2007, to “bridge the gap between citizens and police services”.
The program’s creators noted, “It was intended to help Laventille’s traditionally hostile communities (towards the police) to see the police as friends, not adversaries, while aiming to bring together the warring elements of the Laventille communities” (Wendell Wallace, “The Social Impact of the Hearts and Minds Program”).
At least 100,000 people live in the 53 municipalities that make up the territory of Laventille. Wendell Wallace points out: “The population of the district is largely of African descent and many have family ties to other Caribbean countries.
“For many, the neighborhood of Laventille has become the focal point of the debate on fighting crime in Trinidad and Tobago.”
Paradoxically, for most residents, the Laventille district remains a safe space. Many of these young people never see outside of their immediate communities. Romany thinks that this insidious isolation of people in their individual communities (he calls it “community individualism”) prevents them from getting to know each other. How, then, do we help young people?
Insp Charles suggests that young people are not the main problem. He believes that the lack of proper parenting skills is one of the main problems facing these citizens. Even the youngest children, on their last holiday program, expressed their thoughts in the murals they painted on the walls of their community. They wrote: ‘Stop telling Man Up men’; “Stop the cycle of killing and shooting”; “Know the signs: I am valid”.
In Gonzales, near the inter-agency building where A March for Peace culminated, there have been two killings in the area in the past two weeks.
At the corner of the street where the meeting was held, stood the remains of torches in remembrance of those who had been killed. Hence the theme of the march: “This is not a show of force; [but] a show of love.”
The people of Gonzales were concerned with making their community safer; they resented being stigmatized “by a recalcitrant minority” who felt their community was unworthy. A speaker said his trauma was real. Minister Hinds said ‘the madness and chaos must end’.
And that’s why the work of the Hearts and Minds program is so important. The police officers involved are really attentive and do their best to reach out to their fellow citizens. This exercise humanizes them. It also helps us see them as fragile human beings doing important national service.
In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, father of modern democratic policing, observed that “Police also perform roles similar to those of social workers, marriage counsellors, educators, priests and parents for the purpose to prevent the commission of crimes…or to discourage individuals from engaging in criminal behavior” (quoted in Wallace).
In carrying out their duties as conscientious public servants, Hearts and Minds officers are carrying out the best tradition of responsible citizenship. It is time we recognize the immense service they render to their community.