Under Spanish law, before the conquest of Trinidad by the British forces in 1797, the police force in Trinidad came under the control of the Agualcil Mayor, who was a member of the Illustrious Cabildo which formed the effective government of the colony.
The police in those days comprised six men. These were kept in at St. Joseph, the old capital of Trinidad. As the little village of Cumucurapo grew into the town known as Port of Spain, their activities became increasingly concentrated there. At the time of the British conquest, Trinidad was going through a very turbulent period. The Spanish colonial establishment was relatively small, comprising a dozen or so officials, headed by Governor Chacon and supported by a handful of local Spaniards, a few Frenchmen and a couple of Irishmen. Their chores derived mostly from criminal elements and republicans both black and white, runaway slaves, freebooters and members of various militaries who absent without leave. All these found a ready heaven in Trinidad, arriving by the hundreds from the nearby islands and from down the main. They challenged Chacon's authority almost daily and alarmed the French creole establishment, who were conservative royalists and who had invested what was left of their fortunes in the purchase of slaves and the establishment of plantations. Both property and life were under threat on a regular basis. Chacon could not handle it for much longer.
All this changed with the arrival of the British forces. Sir Ralph Abercromby left his aide-de-camp Colonel Thomas Picton in command of the island. Historian Michael Anthony recounts his words to Picton:
"I have placed you in a trying and delicate position, nor ... can I leave you a strong garrison: but I shall give you ample powers. Execute Spanish law as well as you can. Do justice according to your conscience. That is all that can be expected of you."
With some 15,000 people, mostly French-speaking, both European and African, who had republican sentiments and disliked the English for their support of the French royalists, Picton's job must have been a tough one. History shows that he dealt forcefully with insurgents, malcontents, revolutionaries, lunatics, criminals and opportunists by deporations, public hangings, decapitations and the exposing of body parts of the executed at the town gate and other public places, as was the custom in England and the continent of Europe at the time.
Colonel Picton created a military police force. One could say that the military tradition of the police service in Trinidad, which has come down to the present, has its origins from Picton's time. Picton "instituted the compulsory enlistment of Free Blacks and coloured men into the police and as a result the police force was soon regarded (and so it was considered for many years) not as an essential service but as a form of punishment." writes Fr. Anthony de Verteuil in his "History of the Irish in Trinidad".
Certainly, it became an important employer for the Barbadians, Grenadians, Vincentians and other "small islanders', who came in great numbers to this island. Even in the 1930s, when former police commissioner Eustace Bernard joined the service, he could write in his memoirs:
"The Trinidadian, not the Tobagonian, thought that it was 'infra-dig' to become a policeman, and that the policeman's status, if he had one, was low indeed."
From very early on, recruits did in fact come from overseas, not just the British colonies in the West Indies, but significantly from Ireland. Fr. de Verteuil recounts that in 1823, the police force consisted of James Mean, who was the Chief of Police, Assistant Chief H.G. Peake, Corporal Alexander Sandy, and Constables John McCarthy, B. Vasquez, Peter Stevens, Michael Christie, James Stephens and Peter MacDonald. 2 years later, there were 100 constables in the service, mostly from Barbados.
The commissioned officers were of course from Europe, as all positions of authority during this period of colonial rule were held by British officials. There was an inspector, later called inspector commandant, and two sub-inspectors. Not all the Barbadians who entered the force in those years had African ancestors. There was in Barbados a relatively large community of impoverished white people, who had been transported to the island during the previous century, some to be servants of the upper classes, others to serve indentureships on similar contracts as the Indians who came to Trinidad. These were called "Red Legs" for obvious reasons and because of the class system endemic in the colonial period were treated no differently from the coloureds by the official establishment, who were or pretended to be of the upper classes.
A quarter of century later, in 1877, five members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were brought into the local police force. In 1876, the Police Headquarters was built on St. Vincent Street. On the site of this building once stood the barracks of the old West India Regiment which was brought back from Martinique in 1802. It was built in the Italian gothic style of limestone quarried at Picadilly Street in Port of Spain and cost some £90,000 altogether. It was equipped with an iron ball on a flag post, which fell precisely at midday Greenwich mean time.
It contained a residence for the head of the force as well as quarters for the volunteer fire brigade and the volunteer corps. At one time, the stipendiary magistrate of Port of Spain held his daily court there. In 1882, it burnt down as a result of a fire started in the lamp room. 1862 [?] saw the establishment of a "plain clothes detective branch".
In 1884, Commandant Baker described the force as being composed of 436 men of all ranks including 30 additional in that year. His staff consisted of two inspectors, Englishmen, one posted in Port of Spain, the other in San Fernando. A sergeant major from the Irish constabulary for each division, five sergeant superintendents, one a black man, the others former soldiers from the Irish constabulary, 21 sergeants, both white and coloured, 26 corporals of mixed ancestry, three grades of constables, full strength 350, some of who were European, the others mostly from Barbados "and two or three natives of Trinidad in the whole force, who are usually wathless from stupidity. Besides this stupidity, there is a great dislike to enter the force amongst the natives and the dislike has existed for years." [Source?]
J. N. Brierly came to Trinidad in 1874 to join the police force. Making a name for himself as a detective, he became senior inspector and was instrumental in laying out San Fernando and Port of Spain into beats. Fr. de Verteuil recounts that he travelled extensively to all parts of the island on horseback, giving lectures and instructions. Amongst those Irish were Darcy Costelloe, Fahay Flynn, Murphy Peake and Fraser.
The police force was to be severely tested in the last decade of the 19th century with the Hosay Riots and with the Cannes Brulées Riots, when pitched battles were fought both in the countryside and in Port of Spain between poui stick wielding batonniers and policemen armed with riot batons. By 1890, the York and Lancaster regiment that had been stationed at St. James barracks, left Trinidad. They had been stationed here from the conquest, a distinguished corps whose battle honours include the peninsular wars (March 29, 1815) to the 2nd battalion Aribia (Feb 24, 1824), to the whole regiment India (December 12, 1826). To this day, buttons are found bearing the distinctive rose and the numbers 65 and 84.
A great many Irish policemen were to stay on in Trinidad and marry into local families both black and white.
In 1903, the force now considerably strengthened and housed at St. James barracks in quarters vacated by the York & Lancaster regiment, assumed a military character and was turned out in force to deal with the rioters of the Water Riots, who subsequently succeeded in burning down the Red House. Former commissioner Eustace Bernard, who entered the Police Barracks in 1934, remembers a police force cast in the model of the old school, 2000 strong, commanded by Colonel A.S. Mavrogordato, "every officer was white and with few exceptions came from the United Kindgom. They were termed commissioned officers."
Their appointments had to be published in the Royal Gazette, an official British publication. Bernard recalls that the highest rank a constable could get was sergeant major. He remembers the three local men who rose to that rank as Sgt. Major Rose of the ... department, Sgt. Major Woods in charge of training and Sgt. Major Williams in charge of police headquarters. There was a Sergeants' Mess for non-commissioned officers of the rank of sergeant and above, where no one below that rank may enter and in a similar manner the Officers' Mess.
In those days, there was no such thing as a 44-hour week. Men in training worked for their officers, "making up beds, sweeping floors, cleaning yards and boots, chopping wood etc." Eustace Bernard was in fact the first local man of colour to rise from the rank of constable to that of Commissioner of Police.