In recent years, lawmakers in T&T have taken steps to protect victims of abuse, including the latest amendment to the Domestic Violence Act which allows for emergency protection orders to be granted and broadens the scope of who can apply for protection orders, among other changes.
The T&T Police Service’s newly-formed Gender-Based Violence Unit (GBVU) has also been viewed as a step in the right direction in tackling domestic violence.
Up until October 15, 22 women have been murdered in domestic violence situations for this year.
Earlier this year, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CADV) general manager, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh said there was another issue arising out of domestic violence that is not often examined–how police officers handle domestic violence matters when their colleagues are the perpetrators.
In an interview with Guardian Media, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh said CADV believes that domestic violence perpetrated by police officers is very prevalent.
But Mowlah-Baksh said like many other victims, those abused spouses and partners will often seek help without ever making a report against their abuser.
She said there was added pressure because those abusers are often protected by their colleagues.
A 2019 study said domestic violence remains woefully under-reported with the main hindrance being embarrassment or shame. A 2018 study, meanwhile, had found that domestic violence remains quite prevalent in T&T, with one in three women experiencing some kind of abuse at the hands of their partners.
Guardian Media tried to obtain statistics about the number of protection orders that have been granted against police officers specifically from the Family Court by sending a request via email since May 30, but there was no response.
On January 20, 2020, when the TTPS launched its GBVU, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said it was a long time coming.
In an interview, the unit's head Shireen Pollard said when a report of abuse by a police officer is made, investigators from the unit and the Professional Standards Bureau are assigned to investigate.
"The report is investigated jointly and the decision of which unit would lay charges, should enough evidence be gathered, is done on a case-by-case basis and at the discretion of the heads of both units," Pollard said.
She said all reports of domestic violence received by the GBVU are assigned and investigated.
"The position and/or rank of an alleged offender has no basis and does not affect the decision to investigate as the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service is mandated to enforce all laws and regulations with which it is charged," Pollard added.
According to the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) between 2011 and 2018 they received 49 reports of domestic violence being perpetrated by police officers.
In an interview with Guardian Media, a PCA executive said the authority investigates allegations of domestic violence where police officers are the abusers.
Living in fear
Women escape domestic violence relationships every day. Some heed the advice of experts, family members, and friends and manage to get out alive. Some others are not so lucky.
For Patricia (surname withheld), who managed to escape the marriage while her abuser went on to another relationship, the nightmare she endured for years continues.
In the years she spent with her abuser, Patricia gave birth to two children. In an effort to move on, she rented a tiny apartment in east Trinidad. She spends her days anxiously watching the street in front of the apartment, jumping whenever a vehicle pulls up in her yard.
Her biggest fear is that she will become a statistic in the domestic violence murder count, leaving her young children to fend for themselves.
“I am still fearful for my life I don’t know when or if he starts back to work what will happen to me and the children. I met him working in retail and he was a nice guy at that time. After he got into the service, he got a new vehicle and he started to see money coming in. I don’t know, all the power got to him and he started acting a certain way,” she said.
Patricia's ex-husband is a police officer.
The motto of the T&T Police Service is “To protect and serve.”
But what do you do when one of the officers sworn to uphold the law, breaks it?
The answer might seem clear to many but to Patricia, she has had years of experience that have shown her otherwise.
Patricia met *Mike (not his real name) when he was 20 and she was 30. The young couple fell hard for each other. Marriage came after two years and two years after that, the couple’s first child was born.
The courting and the first several months of marriage were ideal and Mike’s decision to enter the police service was just another step in accomplishing their dreams.
But with the power of his job in the TTPS behind him, Mike’s disposition changed. The arms that offered comfort and protection now sought to control.
In an interview with Guardian Media at her home in May, Patricia recounted years of abuse.
“It was physical and verbal abuse, he would normally slap me in my face, or push me down. There was one time I was on the bed and I was holding the baby, she was about four months and his phone rang. I picked up the phone to give to him, just picked it up and he kicked me off the bed with the baby in my hands,” she said.
Her illusion of a perfect marriage shattered, Patricia turned to her husband’s colleagues for protection.
But report after report to police stations in the Eastern Division made her realise while the law protected abuse victims, getting the officers to uphold those laws was another struggle.
“I would normally go in the station and they would be like, they would call him and talk to him, he would just be like, 'Yeah, she stupid and don’t study she'. And they would say, 'You know that is not the way to treat your wife', and with that, they would just keep talking and having regular conversations.”
She made dozens of reports over the years that followed.
She said she would often call the police emergency hotline, begging for protection during Mike’s outbursts.
“Even when they would come home at times, it would be like they were having casual conversations, they wouldn’t even seek my interest.”
She said Mike was smart and his blows often left no bruising on her skin. On several of her visits to the police station, she was told to go home and "work it out."
“I went through a lot...a lot of physical abuse, cuff in my head, in the centre of my back, slap in my face and then the officers, when I go to them to explain exactly what happened they never used to take me seriously, they just used to say 'you again, you come back again'.”
Several years into the marriage, Mike applied for a personal firearm.
She was terrified.
“He told me they were thinking about it but normally they would have to interview the wife or whoever living there and I told him you can’t come home with that because I was fearful for my life and he said 'Nah, I wouldn’t do that, is just to protect me'. But I know the individual, I know that it wasn’t just to protect him.”
In 2017, Patricia applied for a protection order against Mike. The marriage was officially dissolved in October 2019.
Between 2018 and 2019 he broke the protection order nine times, kicking down the door to her apartment on one occasion and beating her in front of their two children.
During that time he was arrested for breaching the order and spent a few nights in a police holding cell before being carried to court. It a few was the second time he was arrested and on that occasion, Mike was suspended from the TTPS.
But the abuse continued.
Desperate, Patricia turned to t a he Police Complaints Authority for assistance.
In a letter addressed to her from the PCA in October 2019, she was informed that Mike was called into a police station and a senior officer had ‘spoken’ to him. In bold at the end of the sentence, the letter read, “no further police action.”
Despite the monster she knew behind closed doors, Patricia said she never heard a complaint from the public about Mike in the course of his duties.
“As far as I heard, he was the sweetest police officer, he used to treat people really, really nice. It was just home he was evil and wicked.”
She said she was heartened at the creation of a Domestic Violence Unit within the TTPS earlier this year and she wants the Police Commissioner to instruct his officers to take every report of abuse seriously.
“Someone could come to make a report and go back home and that would be the last anyone ever hears or see them. They could be going back to their deaths,” she said.
On Tuesday, Patricia reached out again to this reporter, sharing screenshots of threats she said was made to her by the man.
One of the messages states, "Your treacherous ways will come to an end soon.
She made a report at the Arima Police Station but has heard nothing since she said.