Griffith backs military arrest powers
By JULIEN NEAVES Thursday, May 29 2014
NATIONAL Security Minister Gary Griffith has expressed support for Chief of Defence Staff Major General Kenrick Maharaj’s call for increased powers for members of the Defence Force, saying that it will allow them to do more in this “virtual war” against criminal gangs.
“This is like a virtual war and you cannot go into a war zone, if you fight a battle and something happens, use your citizen’s arrest...or face the consequences,” said Griffith.
“You can’t be half pregnant. It’s either you want the soldiers to go out and do their job or we don’t,” he added.
Maharaj had made the call on Tuesday at the Prayers Plus: Finding Solutions to Crime Meeting of Heads of the Christian Faith held at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre, Port-of-Spain. He noted that consideration should be given to the legislative support allowing members of the Defence Force to engage in independent operations, especially in light of a “stretched police service”. He also noted that they lack the powers of arrest and other powers enjoyed by law enforcement.
Last year Government introduced the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill 2013, formerly the Defence Amendment Bill, to provide soldiers with police powers including powers of arrest. The bill was passed in the Lower House but the Opposition bench withheld its support. At the Senate stage both the Opposition bench and some independent senators refused to support the bill and it lapsed in early July.
Griffith, speaking with Newsday yesterday, commented on the failed bill and the concerns that had been raised about it.
“I could fully understand the concerns by a few about giving that carte blanche authority of powers of arrest for all soldiers where there may be that perception that it cause more harm than good. At the other end of the spectrum we must have a level playing field and understand and appreciate the fact that (for) the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force we are asking them to go out into virtual battles and (telling) them (they have) protection that equates them with that of a citizen’s arrest is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Griffith, a former soldier, dismissed statements that the Defence Force can be used by politicians as “ignorance” by people misunderstanding their professionalism and their role and function.
“Soldiers are not puppets. They cannot be manipulated and controlled by any politician,” he said.
He pointed out private security guards have powers of arrest based on a couple of hours training sessions per day and people have no problem with that arrangement, but have a problem with giving similar powers to soldiers “who are 20 times more highly trained, qualified, experienced in the use of firearms and the minimum use of force (than private security).”
Griffith said while the State does not have to give Defence Force members carte blanche powers as occurred with the Defence Bill there needs to be a compromise.
He pointed out a soldier is not only trained for war but is also trained as a complement to civil power and support the police, including patrolling roadblocks, ordinance search, and joint operations with police.
Griffith also noted some options were being looked at including provision of powers during a national alert state or with certain bills such as the anti-gang legislation where Defence Force members would be empowered while operating in a volatile area.
He pointed out that the situation also involves the other arms of the Defence Force, the Air Guard and the Coast Guard, and the latter only has authorisation while a perpetrator is at sea and not on land.
Questioned whether there would be a return of the Defence Bill or similar legislation Griffith responded that he would have do “some homework first” and have more dialogue with stakeholders to ascertain the situation.