Separating the wheat from the chaff
One of the concerns of Minister of National Security, Jack Warner, is that the 21st Century Policing model does not adequately address the concerns that the Police Service is not viewed by the public as accessible or 'friendly'. What exacerbates this public perception is that some police stations are allowed to close during the night time, limiting the amount of time the police are available to protect the communities they serve. The Chamber agrees that the Police Service should be available to the public at any time, day or night and from what has been presented, the 21st Century Policing Initiative is intended to address issues such as conspicuity concerns, community relationship building, responsiveness and a better lifestyle for officers. If so, we urge the minister to retain those positive elements of the Initiative there are and to note that drastic changes by him should not outweigh the gains.
Accessibility and improved police interaction are certainly issues that the Minister should raise in meetings with the Commissioner of Police and the Police Service Commission (PSC). In fact, The Chamber looks forward to the outcome of his meeting with the PSC. The agenda ought to be pretty long indeed and should include the controversial performance assessments of Messrs. Gibbs, Ewatski, Williams and Richardson. Why is the Police Social and Welfare Association (PSWA) complaining about disrespect by Commissioner Gibbs of their members? Why are there still reports of low morale and dissatisfaction with conditions of work among ranks, which Minster Warner is asking to view police work, not as typical public servants or teachers, working Monday to Friday, but to pitch in and go the extra mile. He must remind the Commission of the need to get real value for money from the Commissioner and his Deputies. He must also discuss why officers against whom complaints are made, are simply sent on long periods of leave, but with full pay while their matters are being investigated.
A full account by the Commissioner of the exercise of his disciplinary powers under the Police Service Act, would be helpful, in view of the numbers of officers before our courts defending allegations of wrong-doing, quite apart from those officers on suspension with pay and the continual daily complaints by members of the public in the media, to the Police Complaints Authority and otherwise, about poor service by police officers. All of this must be included as part and parcel of the performance assessment by the PSC in its second try to get the latter correct!
On another note, The Chamber urges Minister Warner to tread cautiously with plans to allow officers to retain their police issued firearms while off duty. Quite a few of the allegations of misconduct to which we referred involve the renting out of arms, even in Tobago, and their misuse and abuse. Some of them have been carelessly left in glove compartments and other parts of vehicles and buildings. Loss of life has resulted under previous Police Commissioners, where police issued firearms taken home by officers have been employed by them in handling domestic disputes, committing suicides and issuing threats.
Consequently, the Chamber expects like the PCA, that some appropriate prequalification process will also be prescribed for and enforced against those officers allowed this privilege, in view of the popular use of firearms to commit every type of offence and in addition to the risks already described.
The proposed concession to officers, to take home police vehicles may be less risky than firearms, but the responsibility for their safety, use and availability, is just as onerous. The Chamber foresees greater risk with unmarked than marked ones. Minister Warner has already identified the down side of this practice compared with the advantages of increased visibility, response and availability. He has expressed the view that equipping the vehicles with GPS tracking, should deal with their misuse for private business. The use of technology in policing, such as GPS tracking, has been something that the Chamber has been advocating for some time though, we recognise that like all technology, it can be subject to manipulation under certain conditions. Possession of the vehicle does not necessarily guarantee their maintenance either. Perhaps the enforcement of scheduled maintenance with penalties like deprivation of the privilege to take home the vehicle and loss of pay may encourage care under these conditions. The vehicles will only perform efficiently if they are routinely maintained, an observation made by the Vehicle Maintenance Company of Trinidad and Tobago, which is charged with the repair and maintenance of Police Vehicles. This risk is increased if officers are allowed to take the vehicles home and use unauthorised service providers to maintain them. Accountability will be a nightmare, while any of the improvements or advantages contemplated by the Minister, all but an elusive dream.
Congratulations are in order for the long awaited introduction of the bicycle patrol by police officers. It has taken more than four years for the successful Tobagonian initiative to be copied in Trinidad.
The Chamber shares the views of Sargeant Wayne Mystar, who indicated at a recent media briefing, that these patrols will operate in areas which are not easily accessible otherwise, assist with major public events, and improve police conspicuity and interaction with members of the community. We trust that some routine maintenance programmes for the bicycles and other equipment have also been put in place to support this Initiative, so that it does not quickly join with the rest of police equipment awaiting repair or replacement.
The Chamber urges him to continue with his painstaking exercise to get all sides of the policing story in preparation for his meeting with Police Commissioner Gibbs. Already, there is some public perception that the Minster wishes to see the back of the Commissioner. President of the PSWA Anand Ramesar is of the same school of thought. As a matter of fact, that Association has continually criticised Commissioner Gibbs, at every turn, without offering any constructive alternatives.
In closing the Chamber must thank Minister Warner for affording members of the business community the opportunity to meet with him on July 18 and present their views on the war against crime, for if there was ever any opportunity to tilt the balance in favour of the rule of law, it is now, under new leadership in national security.