Judge: CoP must disclose policy allowing cops to wear camouflage

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Justice Carol Gobin –

A HIGH COURT judge has ruled that it is in the public’s interest for the police to disclose information on the thinking behind allowing police officers in special units to wear camouflage clothing, or the policy which allows it.

In a recent decision, Justice Carol Gobin held the refusal to disclose the information requested by Fixin TT founder Kirk Waithe in 2019 “was not lawful.”

She ordered the commissioner to provide the information.

She said, “I find that the public interest demands disclosure. In the absence of an amendment to the Summary Offences Act and the Defence Act, the unanswered question as to the legality even of the order permitting the use of camouflage by police demands a ruling for disclosure in the public interest.

“The circumstances give rise to section 35 (a) considerations of abuse of power or neglect in the performance of official duty as well as obvious questions of unauthorised use of public funds.”

Waithe, in his freedom of information application in March 2019, when former commissioner Gary Griffith was at the helm of the police service, wanted copies of the policy that allowed officers in special units to use camouflage-type clothing; a copy of the approval of the National Security minister for its use; and proof that the approval had been gazetted.

Waithe did not receive a response to his request, and five days after he filed his judicial review claim, the court was told it received evidence of the commissioner’s refusal, on the basis the documents were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Gobin also drew adverse inferences from the failure of the former head of the police legal unit and the commissioner’s then-attorney to provide proof to support their claim that Waithe had been told of the refusal before he filed his application for review.

On the request for the information, the judge said if the policy of allowing the new uniforms encouraged a breach of the criminal law, with approval, then the use of public funds to acquire them could not have been authorised.”

She said the provisions which criminalise the wearing of camouflage by anyone other than the Defence Force remained in force.

“Even when they have been criticised as being anachronistic, Parliament has not sought to repeal them. It is the police who enforce these laws which remain on our statute books.

“It is in the public interest that information which is relevant to the thinking behind it and the implementation of, or establishment of a policy, which allows the enforcers to appear to breach the law, should be disclosed.”

Gobin said, “Ours is a democracy in which the lines between the operations of our military defence force and our police force have been long and clearly demarcated. The wearing of camouflage has been the preserve of the army.”

She said the policy which allowed the police to wear camouflage, even of different shades, could give the impression that special units in the police service were being “militarised.”

“The desirability of this is doubtful, especially at a time when confidence in the police is low and continues to be eroded as a result of continuous and well-documented claims of illegal and or excessive force.

“The use of camouflage, even of different hues can also lead to confusion in the minds of ‘ordinary citizens’ as to the identity of and scope of the legal authority of persons who may be carrying arms.

“The faintest possibility of either of these consequences…the impression that we are militarising our police, even in appearance only, or the lack of certainty as to whether the person carrying a weapon is a police officer, an army officer, or indeed a dangerous armed criminal in camouflage is sufficient to mandate disclosure of the claimant’s request, in the public interest.”

Waithe was represented by attorney Navindra Ramnanan and Ricky Pandohee. Lester Chariah and Joel Roper represented the Commissioner of Police.