Newsday Editorial, published on Thursday 19th May 2016
THE STATE should heed the call of High Court Judge Frank Seepersad who, on Tuesday, called for the implementation of what he termed a proper regulatory framework to govern joint police-army patrols.
Justice Seepersad made the call as he ruled that a soldier on one of these patrols in 2011 was negligent in the discharge of a firearm which led to the injury of a police officer. The soldier claimed the safety on his MP5 firearm had been engaged. The court found otherwise. It awarded the police officer $136,000 in damages.
But after weighing all the evidence in the case and determining the facts, the judge expressed concern over apparent gaps. He said there must be precision and strict adherence to directives and objectives, adding there was no room for individual dissent.
Seepersad found that Army Cpl Lindon Davidson wilfully refused to abide by a direction given by Ag Inspector of Police Ronald Williams. The police officer told the court he had warned the soldier the safety on the gun was disengaged. The soldier, the court found, did not heed this warning.
When soldiers and police patrol, who is in charge? Currently, there are no explicit regulations in place, but it is understood that police officers — during peacetime — should always have the final say. Yet, it is evident that some soldiers do not heed this principle. Are such officers disciplined when they flout the authority of the police? Can they be disciplined in the absence of written rules? While joint police- army patrols have been going on for years, they have never had legislative underpinning. The last attempt to do so came under the People’s Partnership in the form of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill 2013.
That Bill — which was dubbed the “Soldier Bill” — was stood down by the government of the day and eventually lapsed, amid concerns over its attempt to give soldiers the same powers as police officers. The Bill had, however, also proposed to close precisely the gap identified by Justice Seepersad on Tuesday.
Clause 4 of the Bill stipulated that, “(2B) The Chief of Defence Staff shall, within three months of the commencement of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Act, 2013, make standing orders to establish a code of conduct to govern any member of a unit of the Defence Force referred to in subsection (2A), which shall be published in the Gazette.” The Soldier Bill was opposed by several groups including the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), the Law Association, the Criminal Bar Association, the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association, and trade unions. It is a shame the State did not drop the contentious provision relating to power of arrest and simply proceed with the move for standing orders to be formulated. It now falls on the current administration to do so.
And do so it must. As demonstrated by Tuesday’s ruling, there are many hazards posed by these patrols, as useful as they may be.
Unclear or unenforceable lines of accountability are a recipe for confusion, especially if the plan is, as recently stated, to expand these patrols and have more of them conducted in areas like Enterprise.
Not only can police officers be harmed, so too can civilians.
It must also be determined whether soldiers are to be subject to a civilian watchdog — like the PCA — if they harm civilians.
There are already too many gaps in accountability. Local Government Minister Franklin Khan recently revealed hundreds of municipal police officers cannot be disciplined by the Police Service Commission or the PCA.
Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon — a former Chief of Defence Staff — should move to issue regulations under the Defence Act to ensure clear rules of engagement. Going forward, let’s have order.