Sunday 24th December, 2006

Dana Seetahal
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Search for security, justice

The Government may seek to take some comfort from the probability that the number of murders reported in 2006 is unlikely to exceed that of 2005 or if it does it will be minimally. This would mean that the rate of increase of homicides over the past five years has slowed.

But this is cold comfort given the recent high profile kidnappings and reports of communities under siege (Curepe, Lange Park, to name a few).

This is not a time for name calling and cheap political shots. It is a disturbing time that we are conscious of even as we partake in the Christmas merriment. I was made poignantly aware of this recently at a social function that I attended when guests crowded around the television at news time to hear the latest on the Naipaul kidnapping although none of them knew her personally. It seems like everywhere you go these days the talk surrounds issues of national and personal security.

Inspire confidence

I watched the Minister of National Security on Parliament Channel as he gave what amounted to a defence of his ministry during the debate on the Bail Amendment Bill. He did not inspire confidence.

In fact, I could even say that he sounded panicked the day after the kidnapping of a prominent and apparently much respected businesswoman. The Attorney General’s contention that the no-bail for 60 days for people charged with kidnapping must be a deterrent to would-be kidnappers sounded hollow in the wake of this event.

In the last month, the country has seen many serious cases, several of them capital, fall down owing in large measure to the refusal of witnesses to give the testimony that was expected that they had previously asserted in their statements.

Some of them reneged in court and some failed to even show up. A few had been granted immunity from prosecution to testify against their former colleagues. Others claimed simply to have changed their minds.

Loss of memory, false promises for initial statements, acceptance of God were among the range of reasons given to justify the about face.

What was not clearly spelt out was that witnesses were either threatened as to their personal security or that of members of their family.

In so far as police testimony is concerned too often where a case depends largely on police evidence the jury seems inclined to scepticism from the outset. This could be the result of the several cases in recent years involving police violence on the one hand or police inaction on the other.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the newspapers highlighted a case where an Erin man got a call from neighbours that his family was being robbed.

He went forthwith to the police station and made a report only to informed that there was no available vehicle. He then went home where the robbery was still in progress. It was some time after the robbers had left that the police showed up. No wonder the public will have little confidence in the police.

I have heard it said chiefly by PNM supporters that the Government is doing the best that it can. Frankly, I hope this is not so. If what currently exists is the best that we have or can expect then we have no hope.

The first order of business is to retrain the police, not just in how to deal with the public but also how to give testimony. Both if done properly will develop public confidence in the security forces.

For instance at present 95 per cent of officers do not use an Official Pocket Diary in the course of their investigations although it is a requirement of their Standing Orders and is said to be the surest protection against dishonesty.

The public, including I dare say members of the Government, may not be aware how many times police evidence is attacked on the basis that no record is made of key matters in a pocket diary and how often police evidence is rejected as a result. Training on courtroom survival is vital.

Many people have been talking of the need for forensic evidence and the over reliance on witness testimony, especially when gang-related crime is involved. Now that the DNA Bill has been laid and will hopefully become law in the next few months much will be expected from forensics.

Special equipment

A word of caution though, this is expert testimony and again there is need for the police in general to appreciate crime scene investigations.

There has been some training in the area but many police officers complain that all of the special equipment and most of the training is being given to the elite units who are not the first to whom a report is made.

The regular police do not have even the basic technology to communicate with officers out of the station. Will they have the basic tools to do crime scene investigations?

And what of the prosecutors who must present the case to court? When was the last time that there was any meaningful training of either the DPP’s prosecutors or the police prosecutors. I asked this question in the budget debate and received no response.

The Government is not yet doing the best it can to assure personal security and justice to the average citizen. There are, however, measures that now exist that can lead to this achievement in the long-term if utilised effectively.

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