Have we gone too far?
The headline, “It’s not police but soldiers on patrol” was foreboding. It told of Laventille residents reporting that after the murder of Lance Cpl Kayode Thomas heavily-armed soldiers, wearing ski masks, stationed themselves then assumed patrols throughout the Beverly Hills area -- independent of police officers.
Last week, the agenda of both Houses, it would appear, turned the attention of members away from the seething intensity of that problem, just metres away, up “Laventee Hill”.
The Senate on Tuesday returned to the debate to grant cushy pensions and other benefits to all parliamentarians and judges; on Friday the House deliberated on the Planning Facilitation Bill.
Up the Hill, reactions to the patrols are a heated mixture of relief and despair. Some residents shouted hope that the patrols would end the daily violence.
Others saw the masked soldiers, outside their doors, as excessive force; to them the soldiers are the “in your face” promise of the National Security Minister “to fight fire with fire” — regardless.
The majority claimed to be undeserving casualties of the “hot spot”; the fallout from the Defence Force’s blanket response to the Prime Minister’s call “to unleash the dogs” on criminals.
The Police Social and Welfare Association has called for a meeting with the National Security Minister, questioning whether the patrols were in retaliation for Thomas’ murder, and emphasised that, legally, soldier patrols should be conducted only under the umbrella of the police officers.
The Defence Force shot back on Friday. In a radio interview, its officers described the association’s position as “erroneous”, and “completely wrong”. The officers suggested that the Association’s representatives should speak with the acting Police Commissioner, (COP) whom, they claimed, had requested the patrols.
In spite of the PM and the National Security Minister’s declaration of “war”, the acting CoP remains on record, attempting to calm the tension, stressing that the Police have “not launched any war with the Laventille community”.
So far, he has held to the script written by the Attorney General, who on August 30 2013, promised to bring legislation to Parliament, which would grant soldiers police powers.
The AG said: “…when you have open gang warfare and you know that the police need the back-up of the soldiers, we can, by legislation, give soldiers the additional powers, privileges and immunities that they require to respond, with equal force and measure.
“You cannot expect them to go in there if you do not give them the legal, necessary armour and body cover they will need.”
The AG, the Police Association, and the Defence Force may seem headed for further debate on the legality of patrols.
But the focus of the National Security Minister appears to be on his agenda: The purchase of a fleet 20 armoured vehicles to outfit the new Special Operations Group, functioning within the National Operations Centre; 15 armoured personnel carriers for the Defence Force — all “fully armoured, tactical and very military” with special gun ports, and a state-of-the art interceptor, and OPVs for the Coast Guard.
His Ministry’s purchases also includes a new aircraft, helicopters and four (drones), unmanned aerial vehicles for a proposed Air Division within the NOC — apart from the Air Guard — with responsibility for reconnaissance patrols, and real-time information.
The minister proposes to partner with a British firm, Protection Group International, which, he claims, will provide a road map to strengthen national security, intelligence gathering, and attacks on cyber crimes.
“Our people deserve the best protection, enabled by the highest skills, the most advanced technology, and the most professional services,” the minister said recently.
Advanced, yes! The minister may appear proactive, but, strategically, is T&T going the wrong way? Are we, unthinkingly, creating militarised war zones to fight gang warfare?
A new role for the Defence Force? Remember, armies are never “non-political”, because inherent in their instructions are agendas, allegiances and unsettled scores of politicians. And what of these multi-million dollar purchases?
Have we left paradise, in a “maxi-taxi”, for a mine field in the devil’s garden?
Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a career in communication and management