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Dangerous move, Mr Warner
The initiative promoted in Parliament by National Security Minister Jack Warner to precept 1,000 soldiers with the powers of police officers to arrest lawbreakers must have arisen from the frustration of the minister at not being able to achieve a reduction in crime, at any rate to the level that he had boasted he would achieve.
But decisions made in a state of high emotion, perhaps even anger at the criticisms that Mr Warner has been subjected to over his tenure, are rarely good decisions. Defence Force officers are already trained and equipped. It may seem to Mr Warner that since they are not actively involved in fighting a war, they might rapidly and usefully be deployed in the war against crime.
But soldiers are carefully prepared to fight real wars, and cannot simply be diverted to deal with bandits and pickpockets. Perhaps a few of the less personally-involved and more politically experienced members of the Cabinet should counsel Mr Warner against the dangers of such a move.
The police/army patrols used over the last ten years and more began in emergency situations and since then have been used occasionally when there is a period of intense criminality. However, such patrols have always had the knowledgeable, guiding and legal hand of the police officers in the patrol to determine if an infringement of the law may have taken place and if an arrest is necessary.
There are a number of compelling reasons why it would not be wise to seek to convert soldiers into police in one swoop. Soldiers are trained for aggressive and at times violent encounters; they are not trained in the law as police officers are, and are not expected to have the skills and know-how to interact with civilians—who may be distressed, drunk, aggressive or unruly—in a humane and civil manner.
Moreover, as former chairman of the Police Service Commission, Kenneth Lalla, SC, has warned, “There are a lot of legal implications to this matter.” Are the soldiers with the power of arrest going to be patrolling by themselves? If not, then why the necessity to grant powers of arrest to the soldiers? Do the soldiers know the rules of evidence? Who would they report to? Exactly what instructions could they lawfully obey—or refuse to carry out?
If Mr Warner is reacting to a shortage of manpower—perceived or real—in the police service, and perhaps the need for officers who are better equipped and scientifically trained to counter the criminality of the day, then the response is simple, though it takes longer: recruit and train police officers.
It should also be noted that members of the present government were severely critical of the establishment and functioning of the Special Anti-Crime Unit under the previous government as a kind of parallel police service. And when the opportunity came the PP Government disbanded SAUTT. What is the point, then, of establishing another unit outside of the existing police structure and law?
The warning of Sgt Michael Seales on behalf of the police association must also be heeded. Doing such a thing, he said, would engender a loss of confidence in the police and erode the morale of the officers, and they would refuse to co-operate with their untrained military colleagues.
To some, the warning given by Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal that it would be a “dangerous road” for the society to walk down to give powers of arrest to soldiers may seem overstated. However, societies do not always wake up one morning and find themselves under military dictatorship; it may happen gradually.
If the National Security Minister sees a need for increased numbers of police officers then the initiative should be to recruit, train and equip them. To meet immediate needs, maybe retired police officers could fill the temporary breach.
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