Sunday, December 17, 2017

Acid test for choice of new police leader

Express editorial logo427

Mark Fraser

 Proving up the authorship of racially offensive placards held aloft in the May 23 Port of Spain demonstration marks the latest challenge thrown at acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams. The officer had been thrust into the position by the twists and turns of an arrangement designed to improve upon the old seniority system, itself decisively ruled by the blessing of whoever was Prime Minister.

Mr Williams has earned the historical distinction of having arrived in his current acting office in equal parts as victor and victim. It was he who, in 2008, had emerged winner of an international competition for selection of T&T Police Commissioner. 

As required by the 2006 Police Service legislation, however, his nomination needed approval of the House of Representatives. The House, with its then PNM majority, in July 2008 vetoed Mr Williams’ appointment and ordered a restart of the process that it deemed to have been flawed.

He was to score well enough in the subsequent competition to win selection as Deputy Commissioner to Canadian Dwayne Gibbs as Commissioner. With that up-and-down background, Mr Williams, upon the 2012 departure of Gibbs, ascended to acting Police Commissioner, a post ceaselessly embattled against surging crime, headlined last month by the killing of senior counsel Dana Seetahal. 

It’s in respect to the Seetahal murder, that calls arose for the acting Commissioner’s removal over his remarks related to death threats to journalist Mark Bassant. Such calls at once thrust to the fore hassles notoriously connected with the selection and succession of a substantive Police Commissioner. 

Given codified arrangements for recruitment to the top Police Service post, Mr Williams can, in the immediate or near future, realistically be replaced only by another acting Commissioner. Such is the regrettable outcome of political and legislative arm-wrestling that, over years to 2006, delivered the unhappy and unworkable compromise of the Police Service Act, and the enabling constitutional provisions. 

The Police Service Commission has been pushing for legislative reforms that would relieve frustrations in performing its mandated oversight of the performance of the Commissioner and his Police Service. All hopeful changes likely to result in a qualified, credibly competent, self-confident and substantive Police Commissioner remain to be drafted, consulted upon, debated, and enacted. 

Today’s political and parliamentary context, more given to belligerent distrust than to readiness for cooperation toward nationally constructive ends, dooms early resolution of the thorny legislative and regulatory matters involved. Until the parties can somehow bring about a meeting of the  minds to resolve the dire complications of the choice and succession of a Police Commissioner, T&T can expect only another acting performer in the role. 

Nor will the country derive any assurance that the last state of policing and crime-fighting will be any improvement over the preceding.