June 17, 2023

Community policing in action in Trinidad, and the importance of learning from international experiences


PERF members,

A couple weeks ago the U.S. State Department contacted me to see if I’d be interested in speaking at a conference on international security issues at the University of the Southern Caribbean in Trinidad. I value these opportunities to learn more about policing in other parts of the world, so I gratefully accepted the offer. The State Department said I would also have the opportunity to meet with officials from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) and U.S. federal law enforcement officers on the ground in Trinidad.

Over the years, I’ve found these international trips to be invaluable. They’re an opportunity to compare our policing practices to other countries’ practices. Usually we have both innovations to share with our counterparts and lessons to learn from them. In Northern Ireland, I learned about policing in a divided community and regaining public trust. In Scotland, I learned about their use-of-force training and compared it to training practices in the U.S. And in the Middle East, I saw how Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian police leaders could find common ground amidst political and social conflict. We need to look beyond our borders to both teach and learn.

At the invitation of conference organizer Dr. Raghunath Mahabir, I spoke about PERF’s project on community-police partnerships in Jamaica 20 years ago, our work on use of force in the United States, and police body-worn camera policy. For those who aren’t familiar with PERF’s work in Jamaica, Becky Stockhausen, the inspiring leader of the American Chamber of Commerce in Jamaica, invited us down in the early 2000s to study their violent crime problem. Our report was well-received, and USAID then provided us funding to help the police address violent crime and build community trust in the Grants Pen neighborhood of Kingston. We put former Minneapolis and Yonkers, NY Chief Bob Olson on the ground as an advisor and helped develop a new police facility that was unlike any other I’ve seen. In addition to the usual elements of a police facility, it had day care, ATMs, and a grocery store.

The community had been divided between two gangs, and the new facility became a gathering place for community members from both sides of the divide. Police officers began organizing soccer games and community clean-ups. Over time, officers went from riding four to a car with assault weapons to riding bicycles. Crime began decreasing, and the community began trusting the police.

Speaking at the University of the Southern Caribbean

While in Trinidad, I had the opportunity to meet with Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher, who leads the national police service. She outlined some of their challenges, including violent crime, gangs, and trafficking. The country of 1.4 million people had over 600 homicides last year, a homicide rate more than six times higher than the U.S.’s. Many of their guns are smuggled in from the U.S., and drugs pass through the country as they move from South America to Europe and the U.S. Gangs commit a majority of the country’s homicides, and TTPS’s homicide clearance rate is less than 20 percent.

With State Department Public Affairs Officer Kirsten Michener, TTPS Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher, TTPS Academy Provost Dr. Simon Alexis, PERF Communications Principal James McGinty, and State Department Assistant Public Affairs Officer Eli Levine

And I visited with the community policing unit in the Enterprise neighborhood of Chaguanas, roughly 30 minutes south of the capital. Sergeant Jacey Small, Constable Adrian Sealey, and their team have done an impressive job of reducing violence and building community support for the police. They refurbished a basketball court and a field, and opened up a community substation for job training, homework help, and other services. At one point six years ago, the neighborhood had 17 homicides in a single month. Now it hasn’t had one since October.

Their work felt like our project in Grants Pen, Jamaica. These individual officers lived in the community and took it upon themselves to reach young people who needed to see the police in a different light. Building trust is an incremental process, and these officers are there day after day, putting in the work.

Sergeant Small and Constable Sealey are alumni of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), a three-week program that brings international leaders to the United States. IVLP participants spend their first week in Washington, DC, then visit other communities throughout the U.S. PERF occasionally meets with law enforcement participants during their week in Washington, but we don’t hear about the rest of their trips or see what lessons they may bring back to their home countries. So it was exciting to see how their IVLP trips had influenced their work.

Speaking with Sergeant Small and Constable Sealey

Constable Sealey participated in IVLP in 2017 as an NGO leader and has since become a police officer. On the basketball court, Constable Sealey painted “Make Kindness Contagious,” a phrase he heard from former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait. He is building a small urban farm connected to a restaurant where people can receive job training—an idea he picked up from Homeboy Industries, an impressive non-profit founded by Father Greg Boyle that provides services to former gang members in Los Angeles. We met with another NGO leader and past IVLP participant who brought a youth engagement program he heard about in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota back to Trinidad.

The basketball court refurbished by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and painted with the message “Make Kindness Contagious.”

I commend the State Department for selecting innovative leaders like Sergeant Small and Constable Sealey and introducing them to impactful programs like Homeboy Industries.

The country’s police service faces significant challenges, but I came away from the visit encouraged. There are local successes, like the progress we saw in Enterprise, but they now must accomplish the difficult task of scaling up these promising programs.

I want to thank Dr. Mahabir for inviting me to speak at the conference, as well as Public Affairs Officer Kirsten Michener, Assistant Public Affairs Officer Eli Levine, and Cultural Affairs Specialist Kervelle Durant-Julien at the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago for all their support in organizing this visit and sharing their expertise on local issues. Eli and Kervelle accompanied me throughout my trip, and Eli took many of these photos.

If your agency has an opportunity to host IVLP guests or other international visitors, I hope you’ll open your doors to share your successes and lessons learned. You never know how your ideas may be used when visitors return home.