CoP gets tongue-lashing from court over FUL delay

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher – Photo by Angelo Marcelle

A HIGH COURT judge has delivered a stinging rebuke to the Commissioner of Police for a delay of more than two years in deciding on a Tobago businessman’s FUL (firearm user’s licence) application.

On March 25, Justice Frank Seepersad chided Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher for her “unreasonably prolonged and procrastinated” decision.

“The delay in this matter has not been explained, cannot be justified and it is unreasonable…The procrastination which has occurred is simply inconsistent with the obligation to prioritise and pursue the need for good and effective administration.

“Statutory functions must be discharged efficiently and effectively,” Seepersad said.

In granting the declaration Pheon Solomon sought on the top cop’s delay, Seepersad ordered her to make a decision in 28 days.

In his claim for judicial review, Solomon said he submitted his application for a FUL in November 2017. He received his provisional licence and his certification of competence, but has been waiting since August 2021 for the FUL.

Meanwhile, his provision licence expired on August 25, 2021.

In defence of the claim, the commissioner said there was a large volume of FUL applications and the police service’s firearms unit also had to deal with other permits, such as firearm user’s employee certificates (FUECs) and firearm import permits.

The commissioner’s defence further said the department was “severely understaffed” and from 2020-2021, the covid19 pandemic imposed challenges which affected the expediency with which provisional and FUL applications – over 25,000 – were processed.

The commissioner also maintained that two audits of the firearms unit, in September 2021 and January 2022, also led to “unanticipated delays,” and relocating files to the Fraud Squad building was also a contributory factor.

But Seepersad said the explanations given by the commissioner were “simply outrageous.”

“Law-abiding citizens in this country are living in fear and the unabated increase in violent crimes which involve the use of illegal firearms cannot be ignored.

“In fact, it appears that those intent on wreaking havoc have a ready arsenal at their disposal while the majority of law-abiding citizens are unarmed and vulnerable.”

He said the CoP had said it was “unfathomable” to expect her to spend her days deciding on FUL applications when she has so many other issues to deal with, “such as the crime rate, gun-related violence as well as the obligation to manage the human and financial resources of the service.”

But he said there was no evidence to suggest additional duties had been added to the top cop’s office.

“The role and functions to be discharged by the holder of this office are clearly defined and settled and those who aspire to hold the position are deemed to be fully cognisant of the said demands.

“It is simply outrageous that a sitting commissioner would elect to adopt a, ‘Well, I have plenty work to do’ stance, in defence of the delay which has transpired in this case.”

He said the “allure of high office” was often a distraction from its “onerous obligations,” but aspirants must be fit for purpose, equipped and capable of addressing those obligations “with sound judgment and alacrity.

To suggest one core function is more important than another, he chided, was a classic “cop-out” which does not inspire confidence in the office-holder’s capacity or capability.

“Incompetence or restricted ability,” he warned, “cannot and will not be used by this court as a ground of justification when there is a delay in the discharge of a duty imposed by statute.”

In his ruling, delivered at the High Court in Tobago, Seepersad also said the commissioner’s failure to provide details of the process and the dates Solomon’s file moved from one stage to the other was “unacceptable.”

He said in public law cases, there was a duty of full and frank disclosure.

“The defendant has failed to discharge this obligation by her refusal and/or failure to justify the almost seven-year delay which has unfolded since the claimant’s application was lodged.

He also said the excuse of the volume of applications did not help him determine the reasonableness of the delay, nor could the excuse of staff shortages provide relief to the top cop, as the failure to address the situation “falls squarely on her lap.”

“In this republic, crime has escalated to unprecedented heights. The police seem unable to contain the escalation and the national security apparatus has been ineffective as it has not provided viable solutions.”

Hence, he said, people faced hopelessness and uncertainty.

“Disingenuous rhetoric,” pointing fingers and playing the blame game offered no comfort to “the average citizen who feels lucky to be alive on a daily basis.”

In his rebuke, Seepersad said although national security receives one of the largest allocations in the national budget, the “evident and unacceptable” shortcomings of the police warranted urgent and critical review.

“Steps ought to have been taken to address identified areas of concern in relation to FUL licences and proper administrative systems together with adequate manpower should have been implemented.”

He was also critical of the continued use of the pandemic as a “crutch.”

“Astute leaders must identify associated problems and proactively implement systems to abate foreseen difficulties…Life normalised in 2021.”

Seepersad said Solomon, who said he applied for the FUL because of numerous robbery attempts at his home and businesses, followed the process to get one. He also suggested because of the current “catastrophic” crime climate, every law-abiding applicant who met the physical and psychological criteria to carry a gun should be given a “fighting chance” to protect themselves.

“The playing field should be levelled…The ability to have a lawfully obtained firearm can no longer be viewed as a status symbol but must be seen as a tool to ensure survival.”

Solomon was represented by Larry Boyer and Vanita Ramroop.