It should be common knowledge that when this country is under a state of emergency, it is placed in a very sensitive position: civil rights are significantly curtailed, curfews are often put in place, the Police Service, the Defence Force and the Ministry of National Security assume extraordinary powers of stop, search, arrest and detention.
In these circumstances, it is imperative that the public have confidence in the ability of the police to carry out their functions and it is also essential that there should be no questions over the legal validity of the actions taken by the Police Service, questions which may raise doubts and cause confusion in the population.
But on the face of it, the Police Service Commission, by its actions on Tuesday, appears to have been ignorant of these dynamics. The members of the commission are: Professor Ramesh Deosaran (chairman); attorney Martin George; Kenneth Parker; Addison Khan and Jacqueline Cheesman. George is better-known as the attorney retained by PNM senator Fitzgerald Hinds in relation to the NP/Gopaul matter.
The PSC on Tuesday issued, via its Public Education Unit, a press release to the nation’s media purporting to address the issue of the absence of Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs.
Gibbs left the country last Friday to attend official business at Brazil and returned on Tuesday. The PSC claimed that Gibbs failed to properly notify the Commission of his trip to Brazil.
“The Police Service Commission wishes to signal its alarm and concern over the procedure and protocol employed by the Commissioner of Police for his leave of absence from the country and his possible leave of absence from duty in the Office of Commissioner of Police,” the PSC said, adding that Gibbs failed “to notify us properly” of his absence.
Further, the PSC release argued that while Deputy Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams was acting in the post of Police Commissioner in Gibbs’ absence, the PSC had not formally issued Williams with a letter of appointment to act in the post.
This was a crucial point to raise, because, as the PSC pointed out, it was Stephen Williams who, on Monday, signed the curfew orders which put six regions of the country under a 9pm to 5am emergency curfew.
However by Wednesday, almost everything claimed in the PSC press release — drafted by Martin George — was revealed to be incorrect. Far from improperly leaving the country, Gibbs last Friday had notified the Director of Personnel Administration (DPA) Gloria Edwards-Joseph of his absence by submitting an application which noted that the duties of Police Commissioner would fall to Stephen Williams. That same day, the DPA forwarded the application to the PSC. The PSC instead of dealing with the matter which it now piously claims is of such great significance took a decision to defer consideration of the application until this Tuesday. Even when the state of emergency was declared on Sunday the PSC did not consider it urgent enough to deal with the Gibbs’ application for leave on Monday but waited until its regular Tuesday meeting to consider it.
In any event, Williams was issued with a letter of appointment on Tuesday by the PSC — the same day it issued its press release. The appointment had retroactive effect from last Friday. Where, we ask, was the sense of urgency in dealing with what the PSC now argues was such a serious matter?
Lawyers noted that the use of retroactive appointments is common in the public service and never posed a threat to the legal validity of the curfew orders.
There were reports from Commission sources this week that Tuesday’s press release had been subject to lax scrutiny by the PSC. This is easy to believe. But even if that is so, it does not absolve members of the Commission for the irresponsible action they took in releasing a press release which was not only disingenuous but had the clear impact of creating chaos in relation to the curfews at a time when the country has been locked into a sensitive state of emergency.
There were reports that the PSC would issue another press release explaining the claims it made in the first release, but such a release has not yet materialised. But it is clear that the PSC must explain itself in this matter, by offering some sound reason for its actions, and more importantly, the timing of such action. It is imperative that the PSC give some explanation and that it convince the population that its release was not designed to throw a spanner in the works.
The PSC is headed by this country’s leading criminologist who for years has been the strongest voice in the fight against crime. It seems unbelievable to us that he could have allowed such an attempt to further destabilise an already traumatised people.