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Abuse of police powers

By Dana Seetahal

This week it was forcibly brought home to me how necessary it is to have a functioning and effective Police Complaints Authority. In 2006 legislation in the form of the Police Complaints Authority Act was passed to create an independent body and give it "the power to investigate serious police misconduct, police corruption, criminal offences committed by police officers, and the conduct of any person connected with such matters…" The body called the Police Complaints Authority [PCA] was vested with the powers of a Commission of Enquiry.

Search and Murder

How necessary such a body is to the rule of law was made clear following an incident last Thursday involving a relative of mine. She said that morning four jeep loads of police officers turned up at her home: they said they were looking for her brother. They said he was wanted for murder. They entered the house – without a search warrant - and searched inside the house, under the beds and other places. This was after she told them he had not lived there for over twelve years. The police then left after instructing her to call them if she should see her brother.

No information was given as to who he was said to have murdered, when or where. My relative called me, traumatised and embarrassed by the occurrence. She also called other members of the family. That was a morning of serious stress for the entire family.

Time allowed warrant

I made my own enquiries of senior police officers as to the alleged offence. From them I was able to ascertain that the individual was not known to be wanted for murder. The Homicide offices had no such record of any investigation into this individual. Further checks revealed that, in fact, he was wanted on what is termed a "time allowed" warrant. This means in relation to some offence a magistrate had sentenced him to a fine and given him time to pay. Apparently the fine was not paid in time, hence the warrant.

The offence for which this individual had been sentenced involved having in his possession cocaine and drug apparatus. From the charges and its disposition it was clear that the man was a drug user and that his dealings with the law were only in that capacity.

It appears that it was in these circumstances that the police went to the family home seeking to enforce the time allowed warrant. Apparently their subterfuge was designed to have his family turn him in — in fear of a murder charge. Perhaps this was to them an easy way to execute the time allowed warrant.

Trauma

This was the apparent reason for traumatising an entire family, lying to boot and carrying out an illegal search. Is this any justification for such an abuse of power? Supposing the police had spoken to a member of the family such as a parent with a heart condition and this had brought on a fatal heart attack, would the police not be liable for manslaughter? The presence of four jeep loads of police officers begs the question: was the action of the police designed to embarrass the family? And what if we had not found out that there was no murder, what of the trauma the family would have been suffering right now?

These are all questions that I would like to ask the PCA to investigate because, assuming all that I have said is true, especially the information given to me by senior officers, the actions of the police could amount to serious police misconduct and even misbehaviour in public office.

The PCA

Under section 21 of the PCA Act the functions of the PCA include to—(a) investigate criminal offences involving police officers, police corruption and serious police misconduct; (b) undertake inquiries into, or audits of, any aspect of police activities for the purpose of ascertaining whether there is police corruption or serious police misconduct; (f) gather evidence that may be used in the investigation of serious police misconduct and (g) gather evidence that can be used in the prosecution of a police officer involved in a criminal offence and furnish such evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Any Resources?

Does the PCA have the resources to investigate any police action in respect of which there are complaints? In relation to this issue, clearly it is not a matter suitable for investigation by the police themselves [or it will be a case of himself to himself] which is why there is a need for an independent body such as the PCA. I have not heard of any independent investigators being hired by the PCA which is why I question whether it is adequately funded — or at all. While the Director and the Deputy Gillian Lucky and Ralph Doyle respectively may be well qualified and well intentioned, how equipped are they to initiate any investigation that may be needed?

Are there any experts in the PCA to gather evidence in a form that may be utilised for prosecution? If the PCA has the powers of a Commission of Enquiry does it also have the staffing and other resources that will allow them to perform such functions?

The Act stipulates that where there are complaints that might amount to serious police misconduct or corruption the PCA has the sole responsibility for dealing with those matters. It can refer a complaint to the Commissioner or DPP only after it has conducted a preliminary investigation and determined that the complaint does not involve "serious police misconduct".

It is obvious therefore that abuses of powers by the police of which there are daily complaints will only be restrained if the Government empowers the PCA to carry out its mandate by ensuring it has the appropriate resources. Failure to do so will leave all citizens at risk.

• Dana S Seetahal is a former Independent Senator

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