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Discontent over soldiers with arrest powers, Williams faces fight
There is an impending rift between the Police Service Social and Welfare Association and acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams. The association is sending a warning to the acting top cop that it is on a “collision course” over a plan by National Security Minister Jack Warner to precept 1,000 soldiers with the same powers of arrest as police officers.
Warner announced the initiative in Parliament on Monday as one of Government’s several anti-crime initiatives. Williams has given the nod to the plan but the association has branded it as “ill-conceived.” Saying he was disappointed by Williams’ response, the association’s president Sgt Anand Ramesar demanded yesterday the acting top cop consult with the membership of the Police Service.
He added: “We are not surprised by the commissioner’s response but we are clearly disappointed by it. “This is not the first time we are hearing about the idea but it raises the issue about consultation and with all stakeholders, including the ordinary members of the Police Service, who are very much against it. This is something the commissioner has not done.”
Warning Williams to rethink his position, Ramesar added: “The commissioner has said he knew about the plan and he believes there is nothing wrong with it but this is not the view of the association and therefore we are definitely on a collision course where this is concerned.”
He said if soldiers joined the Police Service they should leave the Defence Force and then enter the service as full-fledged policemen but they could not be both soldiers and police officers at the same time. “Soldiers are already entitled to carry a firearm and they can make a citizen’s arrest and that is enough. What more they want?” he asked.
Ramesar said during the existing joint army/police patrols, a combination of soldiers and police, there had been complaints by members of the public about inappropriate behaviour by soldiers. He said: “We first need to review the joint army/police patrols to determine how effective it really has been and examine the relationship between the police and soldiers, then decide if that relationship can exist on the larger scale they are proposing. But at present it cannot.
“There have been several acts of misconduct by soldiers during these very joint exercises and members of the public have no one else to turn to but the police. “Police can arrest people with or without a warrant but soldiers cannot. Civilians, under the common law, have powers to carry out citizen’s arrests, designed to stop people from engaging in illegal activities in their presence.
Ramesar said soldiers and police had been conducting joint patrols for years but it always was understood the police dealt with arrests.
In 2008, the then PNM government first proposed to grant soldiers powers of arrests to curb the spiralling crime rate. The announcement was made after then National Security Minister Martin Joseph admitted it had failed in its anti-crime measures for 2007. The total number of murders for 2007 stood at a record high of 388. In 2006 the figure was 371 and in 2005, 386 people were murdered.
Joseph had said that in 2007, the Government had projected a ten per cent reduction in homicides but that reduction never materialised. Instead, the country saw an unprecedented level of murders, culminating in a .5 per cent increase in the murder rate at year’s end. Joseph also proposed to review the Defence Act to have soldiers arrest civilians.
One of those who shot down the proposal was opposition leader Basdeo Panday who argued soldiers were trained to kill and not trained to deal with members of the public as police officers.
Stop politicising crime —Rowley
Opposition leader Dr Keith Rowley has added his voice to the growing concern about the plan and has accused the Government of playing with the lives of citizens. He said yesterday: “This is just another example that Minister Warner has no crime plan and it is just another ill-conceived idea. “This Government is clearly making up things as they go along.”
He said last year’s state of emergency should have served as an example that it was not advisable to give soldiers the same powers as police. He added: “The Government is not contented by manipulating the crime statistics. Now they are politicising the entire crime situation. “This plan will not only lead to massive chaos but also send a clear message that police officers are unsuitable to do the job.”
Army’s top brass speak
Commanding Officer of the Defence Force Col Anthony Phillip-Spencer made it clear yesterday the military on its own cannot decide public policy. He added: “This matter is not only relevant to the Defence Force but it is one which also affects public policy and in time more views would unfold which would fully shape that public policy. There will be a healthy range of perspectives.
“But at the end of the day the Government is the decision-maker.” He said information and views about the plan also must be given on a broader spectrum. Former head of the Defence Force Brig Gen Carl Alfonso said he believed Government needed all the help it could get when it came to crime-fighting.
Saying he believed the plan was not a “bad one,” Alfonso added: “I think we need as much help we can in combating crime and the plan to bring soldiers into the Police Service must really be discussed with the police.”
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