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National Security Minister Gary Griffith says Defence Force patrols in communities in east Port-of-Spain will continue despite opposition from residents, who have made claims of assaults and other human rights infringements at the hands of soldiers. Griffith made the comment while responding to criticism about the patrols, which began shortly after the murder of Lance Corporal Kayode Thomas in John John, Laventille, last Sunday.
Accusing the soldiers of using excessive force, members of the Laventille community and other members of the public had been calling for the police’s involvement in the patrols. Comparing the patrols to those done by private security firms and neighbourhood watch groups, however, Griffith said: “There is nothing illegal in a patrol independent of police officers.” He said from his personal experience, a strong response from the military in instances of attacks on its members is an international norm.
“It’s a natural reaction. If you touch one soldier, you touch all,” Griffith said. But while he defended the Defence Force’s response to Thomas’s killing, he acknowledged the concerns raised about the need for a police presence in cases where arrests and searches of homes and vehicles are required. As such, he said there will be involvement from the police in all future patrols, but he warned this involvement did not mean that soldiers would be standing “shoulder to shoulder” with police during patrols.
“It is not a witch hunt or retaliation,” Griffith said. He also revealed that Deputy Police Commissioner Glenn Hackett met with Chief of Defence Staff Major General Kendrick Maharaj early yesterday to devise methods to facilitate joint patrols of east Port-of-Spain. The T&T Guardian made several calls to Hackett’s cellphone for comment yesterday but he did not answer.
Initiative lauded by some citizens
National Security Minister Gary Griffith noted that since the Defence Force patrols began in Port-of-Spain, he had received commendations from numerous law-abiding citizens who said the high visibility patrols had returned a “concept of calm” to their communities. Griffith said the only people he felt were being negatively affected by the patrols were criminals whose activities were being dampened. “I have no care for their concerns. They are most irrelevant,” he said.
Contacted yesterday, vice-president of the Police Social and Welfare Association Insp Roger Alexander also underscored the need for police input in patrols. “There are some inconsistencies in the law with soldiers searching properties and vehicles. This is not a state of emergency,” Alexander said. Like Griffith, Alexander, who also has a military background, said he understood the response of Thomas’s colleagues. He also sought to dispel protests from residents who claimed they were being victimised and abused by soldiers.
Alexander said there were many soldiers and police who live in east Port-of-Spain and Laventille and suggested that the patrols were aimed at ensuring the safety of their colleagues and their families. He said the Defence Force also maintained a small base in Laventille and the increased presence in military personnel in the area could be attributed to soldiers travelling to and from it. “I don’t see what all the hullabaloo is about,” he said.
Residents are not the only people to complain about the patrols, as CNC3 journalist Samuel McKnight and cameraman Mano Ragbir were reportedly threatened while attempting to film a group of soliders at St Paul Street, East Dry River, on Thursday. The duo has since reported the incident to Besson Street police, who have launched an investigation. The following day, civil military affairs officer of the Defence Force, Major Al Alexander, apologised for the incident.