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Considering an end to the SoE

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Monday, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar will let the nation know whether her administration will lift the state of emergency (SoE) that has extended the powers of arrest and detention of the nation’s security services over the last three months. While we have been supportive of the national security measure and acknowledge the drug and gun hauls which have been successfully executed during this time, it seems clear that there will need to be an argument of some significant persuasiveness offered for the emergency to be extended beyond its scheduled end on December 5.

The successes of the state of emergency are now being overshadowed by the necessary but no less punitive hardships that have accompanied its restrictions. Opponents of the legislative measure have argued that much of what has been accomplished might have been done under the provisions of the nation’s existing constitution and laws, and it can further be argued that the special powers of the SoE have effectively brought no-one to justice. Hundreds of suspected gang-members have been released in a particularly ignominious indictment of poor police procedure and evidence gathering and on Monday, the State will have to either bring a case before the detainees currently suspected of being part of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and several cabinet ministers or also set these detainees free.

It has been one of the unfortunate hallmarks of the national security measures, and announcements imposed since August that there continues to be little information or explication of the reasons for the imposition of the SoE and for its continuation. There have been overtures of threat, warnings of dire circumstance and more recently, the mobilisation of security forces to guard against an assassination threat. These are not casual matters and demand a serious response, but the cost to Trinidad and Tobago has been high. The SoE and the accompanying curfew destroyed the country’s active nightlife for several weeks, adversely affecting hundreds of hospitality workers and vendors.

Businesses with 24/7 operations had to implement special systems and the overnight transfer of goods came to an unscheduled end. During this time of legal restrictions there was much corporate sympathy for the anti-crime measures, which also reduced opportunities for criminal activity. There was a sharp and observable drop in statistics across all classes of crime that matched the stifling of free movement after dark during the curfew. Over time; however, it became clear that criminals weren’t in retreat, they were on vacation, taking the implementation of the curfew as an opportunity to relax and, presumably, enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

One high profile spate of arrests at the Hyatt broke up a sybaritic party hosted by suspected gang leaders, but ultimately achieved little else after all those taken into custody were later released. The unfortunate result of all these much trumpeted arrests followed by the humiliations of an unblemished record of failure to make any charges stick has been a diminishing of faith in the capacity of the Police Service to leverage the law in the service of national security. This has occasioned an attendant faltering in the faith the country places in both the warnings of the Government and the substance of its anti-crime measures. This could not have been the Government’s intention when it responded to the national threats that it believed merited the state of emergency and curfew measures.

In deliberating on its next initiatives to manage crime, the Government should be guided by the evident failures that have made transparent the gaps of knowledge, failures in procedure and lack of capacity within the Police Service that led to three months of heightened security and a conspicuous absence of any fish, big or little, to show for it. After the hardships of the SoE, the nation was entitled to expect more in return for its support, tolerance and patience over the last three months. If the PM and Minister of National Security learn from the mistakes and lapses that became apparent during that time, the sacrifices might well lead to a smarter, more focused and capable Police Service that’s better equipped to match the criminals it faces.


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