Now consumed by the idea of putting soldiers onto the streets, the Prime Minister cannot be serious. As she puts more police power into political hands, there is no sign of the comprehensive anti-crime plan the Government believes it has in place. And, even as she purports to address crime, the PM has failed to answer the question of a minister's son alleged to be in the clutches of the US authorities. Until the PM and Attorney General provide answers, no anti-crime measure can be taken seriously.
The original Defence Force (Amendment) Bill 2013 is a deceptively short amendment to the Defence Act that puts police powers right into the hands of the minister responsible for national security. It's like the creation of another "private police army", as the current AG once described the placement of the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau (ACIB) under a previous AG.
The Defence Act is unambiguous in defining the authority the Minister of National Security has over the Defence Force. Under the Act, the duties of the Defence Force are determined by a Defence Council chaired by the minister responsible for national security. And, the rest of the Council comprises two ministers, the Chief of Defence Staff, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of National Security.
Most important, the Act permits the Council to delegate all its powers to a member of the Council. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Council, with ministers in the majority, can delegate its power to the Minister of National Security. And, it is not farfetched to suggest that the Minister can control the Chief of Defence Staff, because the Chief is subject to the general or special directions of the Minister. In the context of distrust of the Government, strong objections lie here and this amendment should remove political control of the Council, and put the Commissioner of Police into a revised Council.
But, even with changes to the Bill, there are concerns with the context of this amendment. In September 2011 the PM declared that crime-fighting strategies were working, though the country remained under siege. Ad-hoc measures are announced, and this legislative amendment is just another one. This proposal is as much a revelation for the People's Partnership as it is for the rest of the country. The Partnership manifesto is silent on giving soldiers police powers. The words, "Defence Force", "soldiers" and "army" are nowhere in the manifesto. And, the PM's emotional statement of September 2011, titled "A nation fights back", makes no reference to the proposal in 35 pages on crime-fighting.
The omission is unsurprising. As Minister of National Security, retired Brigadier John Sandy would have been the perfect launch-pad for this proposal, but this was never part of a plan. In fact, in August 2011 Sandy said, "The Defence Force in Trinidad and Tobago, the land forces in particular, were designed for the fields, not urban operations on the streets. Those are for the police".
But, failure to mention is not indicative of the lack of merit in the idea. An unfortunate aspect of this amendment is the AG's view that objections mean opposition to a reconsideration of the role of the country's military assets and personnel. Such a review is welcome, but it's not what the Government currently proposes. The Government proposes another piece, in a piecemeal and unco-ordinated fight against crime.
Without a comprehensive anti-crime plan, the country does not know what's next. There is no optimal size or design for the Police Service and no critical manpower list for specific areas. There is no push to supplement police resources with private sector resources, while advancing the regulation of the private security industry. There is no effort to increase civilian numbers in the Police Service, and identify specific technology which will reduce manpower needs in areas capable of automation. In short, in presenting a piecemeal approach to fighting crime, the Government has not been fair to the country or itself.
Ultimately, no government can be serious about reducing crime without being interested in the flow of drug money through the country's financial institutions. The Government has papered over the money laundering problem to the satisfaction of the Financial Action Task Force. But nothing has really changed, except for the uptick in reported money laundering. For over two decades the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) has been collecting information on money movements through the drug trade, but no fish, big or small, has been caught.
And, even if the Bill becomes law, we must confront the effectiveness of our soldiers as policemen. Training and expertise is critical to the effective exercise of police powers. The Judges' Rules have been described by Justice Volney (as he was then) as a way of thinking, embodying settled practices acknowledged as protective procedural mechanisms of due process under the Constitution. The current proposal to quickly train soldiers in the same way SRPs are trained may not be enough, especially without the training academy promised by the Partnership.
In 2011, the State of Emergency highlighted the complete failure of the Police Service to appreciate the special requirements of the country's anti-gang legislation. This understanding is critical to dismantling gangs. If the country's specially trained police officers could not match intelligence-gathering with the evidentiary basis required by the law, the country's untrained soldiers will not do so effectively and constitutionally. The State could not successfully prosecute any alleged gang member arrested under emergency powers.
Without answers on a minister's son possibly being investigated on criminal allegations, the Government is forked-tongue on crime. It is a disastrous PR context to initiate this far-reaching proposal, especially without a comprehensive anti-crime plan. This looks like more guesswork, and if it fails, the Partnership, like the amendment it proposes, would face its own sunset clause.
—(Remembering Tajmool Hosein, QC, a friend to press freedom)
• Clarence Rambharat is an
attorney and a university lecturer