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Is it better to ‘act’ first?

By Dana Seetahal

 The Attorney General has been quoted as saying that he is not an advocate for having the Commissioner of Police appointed on a permanent basis, in the first instance. His rationale appears to be that during the months of the acting appointment one is able to make a better assessment of the appointee to determine whether he is in fact suitable for the post. If the acting appointee does not cut it, so to speak, then another person would be appointed to act.

It seems to me that if one were to carry this rationale to its natural conclusion then in relation to any top public post the same argument could be made. It could apply not only to a commissioner of police but to a DPP, a permanent secretary, a commissioner of prisons, a chief medical officer and other similar posts—even a judge. 

One would have thought that prior to making any kind of appointment those in charge would have had an opportunity to make a complete assessment of the applicant either when he held posts lower down the ladder in the same organisation or other organisations. This is what enables a service commission to make an appointment: based on the applicant’s training, qualifications, experience and character as well as his performance at the interview.

Permanent appointments are made all the time and there is always a chance that the person chosen may not be the best. What is so different about the office of commissioner of police?

The problem ensues from the process involved in the appointment of a commissioner (and deputy commissioners) which is not only more long-winded than in respect of  appointment to any other top post in the Public Service, but is also the most political. It was a process that was agreed to in 2006 by both the then opposition and the then government as part of their joint “crime-fighting” initiative. The 2007 regulations that govern the selection process for the post of commissioner require advertising of the post for at least four months prior to the contracting of the services of a firm experienced in assessing top police managers. The Director of Personnel Administration receives applications and sends them to the firm for assessment. 

The firm, which in the past has been Penn State University’s Justice and Safety Institute, first determines how many candidates meet the basic criteria. These include a degree and at least 15 years experience of increasing responsibility in law enforcement. There is a list of other subjective criteria that an applicant must possess: leadership skills, management skills, communication skills, commitment to the cause of the organisation, vision and integrity. 

After this there is an actual consideration of the applications of the candidates by the firm and the number is reduced, at which stage another assessment takes place. The firm then submits the results of its assessment in an order of merit list to the Police Service Commission (PSC) and the latter is required to consider only the top five candidates. The PSC reviews the assessments and conducts its own interviews. It gathers information and at this stage that would include security checks and the like. The PSC then makes a selection and submits the name to the President in accordance with section 123(3) of the Constitution.

Once the name is submitted to the President he is required to issue a notification specifying the person nominated for the position. This notification is subject to an “Affirmative Resolution” of the House of Representatives (Section 123 (4) of the Constitution). The PSC can only appoint the commissioner after the House of Representatives approves the notification.

The bottom line therefore is that the government of the day determines whether a not a particular candidate will get the job as commissioner of police. Previously it was the Prime Minister who had the veto. The law has been amended to give this power to the House. But does this make any practical difference? I suggest not. It is the Government that has the majority in the House (which is why it is the government) and everyone knows government members vote party line. 

The PNM government, in promoting the package of legislation in 2006, emphasised how different the selection of a commissioner was under the new law. That may be so to the extent that the whole process is more cumbersome than ever before, but the law has still not changed the fact that it is really the government of the day that has the choice to accept or refuse the PSC’s choice of commissioner. 

Whichever way one looks at it the 2006 law as regards the appointment of a commissioner has proved not just tedious but unmanageable and leaves it open for the authorities to continue with acting commissioners ad infinitum. This cannot be good for any organisation and certainly not the Police Service. It tends to generate uncertainty and a feeling of discrimination when compared to other branches of the Public Service. 

Why is it that only in respect of a police commissioner that it is enshrined in law that he must have leadership skills, management skills, communication skills, commitment to the cause of the organisation, vision and integrity? Why is it that only in respect of such an appointment that there is a wide-ranging debate in Parliament as to the individual’s qualifications and suitability?

And finally, why must a commissioner of police be subjected to “acting” continuously to prove that he is suitable once he has met the requirements in terms of qualifications and experience?

• Dana S Seetahal is a former Independent Senator

 
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