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Dana: Full police powers for soldiers a ‘dangerous’ move
National Security Minister Jack Warner is leading the country down a “dangerous road” by having 1,000 soldiers precepted with full police powers. Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal and the Police Service Social and Welfare Association, among others, strongly objected to Warner’s plan yesterday.
Seetahal warned the initiative would have serious repercussions and could eventually turn the country into a military state. She also cautioned that the State would have to fork out millions of dollars in lawsuits for wrongful arrests. Warner made the announcement in Parliament on Monday as he listed several anti-crime measures for 2013.
But Seetahal, in a telephone interview, said there were two separate powers given to the police and soliders, both of which must be carefully guarded. “The army and the police have two separate functions. The army is to protect us from foreign attacks and also to deal with national disasters. “The police investigate, detect and protect us internally.
“The two bodies must not be confused,” Seetahal said. Questioning the motive behind Warner’s plan, Seetahal said the move would result in a duplication of the Police Service. “The powers of arrest must be for something. What is the purpose of giving 1,000 soldiers this privilege? Are soldiers now going to be investigating crime?
“The power of arrests cannot be used in a vacuum. We must be careful we do not have a duplication of a police force because this could have very serious implications and I believe this would lead the country down a very dangerous road and this would have a worse effect on the country.” Seetahal said Warner should instead increase police manpower and train them properly.
Why police are against it
The police association’s secretary Sgt Michael Seales said yesterday officers branded the idea as “ill conceived,” “retrograde” and “nonsensical” and felt it would be to the detriment of the public’s confidence in the Police Service and erode police morale. And instead of trying to turn soldiers into police officers Seales, like Seetahal, called on Warner to increase the manpower of the organisation.
Calling for greater consultation before a final decision could be made, Seales sent a warning that soldiers must “know their bounds.” So disturbed is the association over the proposal that it has already warned its members not to accept anyone arrested by soldiers into police stations. “This really is a retrograde step, to say the least,” said Seales.
“First we must look at it in the context that soldiers are trained killing machines and ill-equipped to deal with members of the public, (unlike) police officers, who are trained in all aspects of law enforcement. “It must be emphasised that a soldier is not a public officer.”
Saying before an arrest could be made there must be proper evidence, Seales queried whether soldiers knew the difference between mere information and evidence. “In the first instance, a soldier does not know what to look for when it comes to evidence and therefore would run the risk of picking up people off the streets willy-nilly. Even in housing prisoners there must be certain rules and regulations which must be meticulously followed.
“We as police officers also have to a duty to safeguard the public from such matters. We are guardians in that sense. And we are totally against this ill-conceived proposal.” During the state of emergency last year, Seales said, 23 people were arrested by soliders but had to be released because there was no evidence to hold them.
“This is the kind of confusion that would take place,” he said. “During the state of emergency, soldiers acted on their own and arrested these people and brought them to the station. “Our officers refused to accept them, and rightly so, because there was no evidence in the first place to arrest.” Another issue was the lack of a body that the public could access to make complaints against soldiers.
“There is the Police Complaints Authority and there is also the Police Service Commission, which also looks into matters of complaint,” Seales said. “But there is no body for members of the public to turn to if they believe there was misfeasance on the part of soldiers.” Another area of contention was that some police officers were still grappling with the Judges’ Rules, which specify specific guidelines on various issues including the power of arrest.
“If this is still the situation with some of our officers, what would happen to the soliders? It would be a disaster,” Seales said. He said even more disturbing was that Warner was continually boasting that crime was on the decline, but in the same breath calling for soldiers to be given the same powers as police officers.
“The message the National Security Minister is sending is confusion to the police and the public. The minister keeps saying crime, in all categories, is decreasing. Therefore this must be attributed to the hard work and dedication of the police, because the soliders had absolutely no part to play in that. “The statement of the National Security Minister is paradoxical in many ways,” he added.
Saying the Police Service and the Defence Force had contributed to crime-fighting via joint anti-crime exercises, Seales said the association would not jeopardise that relationship. “But we are making it very clear that soldiers must not go beyond their bounds.”
Former PSC chairmen speak
Two former heads of the Police Service Commission) have also advised the Government to tread carefully with the matter. Kenneth Lalla, SC, said the ultimate decision lay with Parliament. “There are a lot of legal implication to this matter...This has to be carefully considered,” Lalla warned.
Echoing Seales’ sentiments, Lalla said in one breath the Government was boasting crime was down but in the other wanted to precept soldiers. “The population now seems to be confused,” Lalla added. Nizam Mohammed, also a former commission chairman, was also sceptical about Warner’s proposal.
“This will be a serious challenge, because soldiers have not been trained in law-enforcement techniques and as such there is always the (risk of) infringement of the rights of citizens.”
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