The Special Anti-Crime Unit wizards allow a peek under the curtain
Story and photographs by Mark Lyndersay

Published in the Sunday Guardian, October 15, 2006 (Note: Due to a copy placement error, this is not exactly the version that appeared on October 15, but it was the version that was intended for publication.)

Forensics students in the classroom at Cumuto.

In October 2003, Prime Minister announced the formation of the Special Anti-Crime Unit as the first item on the agenda of crime relief initiatives with these words: "With immediate effect Colonel Peter Joseph is relieved of his command as Commanding Officer of the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment and mandated to establish a Special Crime Fighting Unit.
For this unit, within the ambit of the law, we shall draw on persons from any of the Services in the country, the Police, the Regiment, Coast Guard, Prison, Fire Services, Volunteer Defence Force and from the Civilian Population."
Last month, the Special Anti-crime Unit initiated what they described as a "Fly on the wall" photo opportunity that was originally meant to follow someone as they went through their day working at the unit's operations. What they allowed was a carefully managed series of interviews and very little specific photography at all.
Sautt (insiders pronounce it "sort") has been shrouded in mystery since it was formed, but this first attempt at public disclosure of their operations offered more questions than answers.

Sautt's headquarters is a robustly fenced blue building in El Socorro, wearing as its only livery the traditional Independence-Republic day bunting of Government offices. The building is a labyrinth of stairs, narrow corridors and small offices painted in the nauseous beiges and yellows that the public service favours. On the top floor, the executive and operations offices, that bilious colour scheme gives way to a bright blue that makes the heavily partitioned space feel oppressively cheerful.
A PowerPoint presentation is the first item of the day, in a room normally used for planning. In the middle of the white painted room is a huge table made of partly translucent dark glass. Along the south wall of the otherwise empty and nondescript white room is the only hint of the strategic planning that happens in here, large maps of Port-of-Spain and Trinidad and Tobago, boxed strategically in colours and numbered.
In other rooms, geographical information systems cartographers work behind huge computer monitors to remap the country's topography in updated detail. Also on this top floor crow's nest is the operations room, where large flat panel monitors were described as being continuously updated with data and imagery from air support and other surveillance operations. Access was not allowed to this area and it was represented on a PowerPoint slide by a dark, almost indecipherable image in which I could just make out large screens mounted on a wall.
On the second floor of the building is a large open area nested with low-profile cubicles used by the investigations team. Of the 16 local police officers and 20 UK investigators that form the team, only three were in the building during my visit. Mervyn Richardson, Assistant Director, Investigations, another grey-bearded senior investigator who deferred my presence to Ron Scott, a tall, rangy UK retired detective chief inspector, on the job for just two weeks.
The other installations that I viewed included the Air Guard's hangers at Piarco, the temporary base of the unit's helicopters and the new airstrip, nestled in the woods of Cumuto, where a massive "multi-purpose" building is being built to be put into full operation by April 2007.
The Cumuto airstrip is also home to the unit's dirigible, a 200 x 70 x 40 foot airship, tethered to a tall post and floating on a single wheel strut, gently rocking in the breeze and rolling from side to side.
Cumuto also houses the new Crime Academy, a squat two-story building where Police and Sautt officers will be taught anti-crime techniques. The faculty is English and includes female lecturers. During the visit, John Veale, a forensics expert was coaching a dozen police officers in the use of the magnetic powder in their black forensic investigation cases.
The building is composed of a series of classroom style rooms connected by a corridor, and the second floor is given over to a dormitory of 21 rooms, each of which accommodates two students. The rooms each have two beds, a bath and two workstations. Laundry facilities are provided.
In October, the Crime Academy will have an intake of 150 officers from the Police Service and Sautt.

Sautt is composed of officers selected from the Police Service (33 percent), Army (36 percent), Coast Guard (12 percent), Prisons (4 percent). Civilians (7 percent and UK officers (8 percent) make up the rest, along with the lone Norwegian, Canadian and Jamaican pilots assigned to air support. There are 39 UK officers on the team, so deductive mathematics suggests a full Sautt complement of 558.
The team looks like the usual suspects, chiefly of African descent and mostly male. Ten percent of the staff are female, assigned to "investigations, operations, logistics and administration" and with the exception of the public relations team, which now includes former journalist Ucill Cambridge, they were invisible during the visit.
The job is described as "intelligence-driven," a response to the poor detection rate of crimes in Trinidad and Tobago and a last-ditch effort by Prime Minister Patrick Manning in 2003 to sandbag against a rising tide of crime.
"Sautt doesn't have primacy in its operations," says the Assistant Director of Operations, who declined to give his name. "Our job is intelligence, surveillance and investigation."
The current state of operations includes training at the Crime Academy, improved surveillance and a claimed enhancement of inter-departmental operations in the Ministry of Security, which were, according to the Assistant Operations Director, "operating in silos."
That support role is clear when police officers call on Sautt's air support to provide eye-in-the-sky reporting during an operation, and several videos demonstrating the clarity of the helicopter's infrared capability were presented at the Piarco air support facility.
But Sautt also has a Direct Action Team composed of Special Forces soldiers, Coast Guardsmen and Police Officers who are trained to rappel quickly from a hovering helicopter and act as support for investigators in the field. This team, heavily armed and clad in bulky, dark clothing in videos, has provided support for 90 percent of the 260 operations that Sautt boasts of having initiated.
In addition, the unit boasts of having its own in-house legal advisory resources and claims that it consults regularly with the Attorney General on planned operations. The Assistant Director, Operations emphasised that the dovetailing of Sautt's operations with those of the other arms of the Ministry of National Security happens at the level of the Joint Intelligence Group and Joint Operations Group.

Investigating crime
Dave King, Deputy Director, Investigations, has been on the job at Sautt since March.
"It's process and procedure," King says. "You have to build your case carefully. In the UK, officers have had legislation change on them because they made mistakes that weren't addressed quickly enough. You have to learn what criminals do so you can counteract it."
King believes that the collapse of once lucrative drug routes has led to a refreshing of drug routes through Trinidad and Tobago and other islands in the Caribbean.
Key issues facing the UK team were immediately clear. Crime scene awareness, crime scene investigation and case preparation were sorely lacking. The forensic lab was overwhelmed and many laws were lagging behind the technology used in modern day investigations.
According to Mervyn Richardson, Assistant Director, Investigations, a wiry, outspoken local crime veteran, "the Police service has been in existence for over 500 years. Now we're working to find the best fit between what works and what doesn't in the UK experience."
"There are differences in culture. UK officers will shut down a street to conduct an investigation, sometimes for days. We can't do that, people would go crazy. Officers do house to house investigations. You think we can do that in Laventille? You know what would happen to people seen talking to the police? We would fill a cemetery."
Six months ago, the investigations team was composed only of local officers. As Richardson speaks, the walkie-talkie on the desk behind him crackles with the voices of Englishmen.
Dave King, a stout, bespectacled man with a grizzled beard, is patient about the hurdles and heartened by the successes the team has had so far.
"It's about creating a fear of getting caught. Trinidad and Tobago can't be seen as an attractive place to engage in crime."

Guarding the guards
Sautt's managers are proud of their efforts to build a crime response unit that's modeled, they admit, along the lines of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and the British Serious and and Organised Crime Agency.
They hope to create a unit that will be committed to continuing education and eventually be considered a "career of first choice" for tertiary level graduates.
It's almost a given in Trinidad and Tobago that the Police will be unloved for their work, but at Sautt, there is an undercurrent of something even deeper.
Although the organisation had been briefed that there would be a media presence and a path had been carefully cleared for my visit that kept me away from anything really sensitive, few people spoke openly and almost no-one agreed to be photographed.
At one point, a scheduled demonstration of the computer-driven facial recognition system was simply refused by the IT specialist.
The logic of it is simple and readily appreciated. Our islands are a small, social country in which connections are quickly made. It's a point that Dave King makes when he laments the appalling state of the witness protection programme, which leaves too many witnesses dead.
Criminals can take unilateral action when they have information and Sautt must work within the law, referring to its own internal legal department and the Attorney General's office.
So Sautt sheathes its operations in secrecy and explains its operations with great trepidation. But, the flip side of this equation is the social demands of the laws that Sautt enforces.
The organisation isn't fully constituted as a legal entity. Most of its legal capabilities rest on the individual police officers it employs. The considerable surveillance power that Sautt has at its disposal demands some level of transparency in its operations, because without that, the unit always remains one careless step from being a tool of tyranny.
But that isn't what left me concerned after the day-long visit. What I thought about for days afterward was this: if Sautt's people, with all the force at their disposal, the rapid-action teams, the eyes in the sky and their mysterious executions of surveillance operations can't walk the streets with their heads held high, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Sautt stats
According to the Special Anti-Crime Unit's Assistant Director of Operations, the organisation success record is as follows...
• Operational within three months of the Prime Minister's budget day announcement in October 2003.
• Logistics group et up a Crime Academy in six months, starting with a bare patch of land.
• Establishment of a multi-disciplinary Direct Action Team (Police officers, Coast Guardsmen, Army officers) which has supported investigators in 90 percent of the 260 plus operations that Sautt has engaged in.
• Canine unit with 25 dogs.
• Busted shipments of narcotics worth $700 million, recovered 27 kidnap victims and confiscated $22 million worth of equipment used in illegal quarrying. (These statistics have also been claimed by other law enforcement agencies)
• Air support established with a S76 Sikorsky (Paradice One) and a Eurocopter AS 355 FX (Viper) has flown 1900 man-hours in air patrols, clocking 700 hours in 2006 alone, the lion's share of which are day patrols, night patrols and Sautt intelligence missions. Air support has flown 23,000 hours since Sautt's inception.
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