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Who will police these soldiers?

Between 2001 and 2010, citizens were treated to a variety of crime plans and promises which, save for a reduction in kidnappings for ransom, failed to stop the escalation of criminal activity. Now, with some improvement between 2010 and 2012, National Security Minister Jack Warner is offering old standbys while boasting about new results.

Mr Warner's list includes scanners for Customs; expanded Defence Force and police deployment in coastal protection; better surveillance radar; more CCTV cameras; more police vehicles; more bulletproof vests; more police youth clubs; revamped E999 call centre; and more rapid response.

But, while all these initiatives may be necessary, they all fall under the rubric of standard operating procedure. And the one proposal made by the National Security Minister that looks strikingly new has, immediately and understandably, aroused widespread concern: deputising soldiers for law enforcement by giving them full police powers.

While there would be no good time to propose such a drastic realignment of the country's national security order, Mr Warner's idea comes at the very moment when serious questions are being raised in light of the apparent murder of an on-duty soldier. Even as the dispute about autopsy findings spurs chatter about competence and conspiracies, Defence Force Chief Kenrick Maharaj may have only exacerbated public suspicions by his offered "proof" that Lance Corporal Curtis Marshall was not murdered by another soldier – to wit, that such an incident has never happened historically and soldiers "live as a family". Then, in the wake of all this, Minister Warner announces that soldiers will be given the power to arrest citizens.

Even the late unlamented Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT), which was never legally constituted, didn't have such authority. Yet the People's Partnership administration, whose spokespersons had once portrayed SAUTT as a PNM version of Grenada's infamous Mongoose Gang, now wants to give to soldiers, trained not to pacify but to kill, police powers. Mr Warner's rationale seems to be that effective crime-fighting hinges on manpower. But even this basic requirement may be disputed, as former police commissioner Dwayne Gibbs indeed did. In any case, even if the police need more boots on the ground, is the Defence Force where those readymade boots are to be found? Until the Government makes clear how it proposes practically to implement such a scheme, objections in principle will abound. Why turn to the Defence Force instead of going on a recruitment drive? How will adding soldiers to the police force solve manpower problems in other areas, such as road traffic policing?

But all such questions will be subsumed by one major concern: What are the safeguards which will prevent these hand-picked soldiers from overstepping their military bounds?

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