Opposition rejects acting Commissioner of Police bill

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher. – File photo

THE Government on April 19 failed to convince opposition MPs to support a bill to remove parliamentary oversight on the appointment of an acting commissioner of police (CoP) or deputy commissioner.

The House of Representatives debated the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2024, piloted by Attorney General Reginald Armour.

With government MPs giving 21 votes for the bill while all 18 opposition MPs voted against, the bill failed to get the support of a requisite two-thirds special majority of MPs.

In an immediate reaction, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said in a statement  the bill would have “omitted transparency and accountability” in the selection of an acting CoP and acting deputy CoP.

“Today, the Opposition UNC scored a major victory on behalf of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, and democracy, when they defeated the Government in its attempt to pass the Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament.

“It is a victory for democracy, as the Government was unable to secure the two-thirds votes needed to pass the bill in the Lower House.”

Armour in presenting the bill, asked the Opposition to act responsibly.

He denied any rational basis to suggest passing the bill would threaten the independence of the police service or the police service commission (PSC).

Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein said the Opposition was treated with scant respect by an AG throwing a bill in their faces and telling them to support it.

“So when the AG comes, it can’t be just speaking for 20 minutes and we support it.”

Hosein asked if the bill passed, would the Police Service Commission’s acting CoP nomination still be bound by its order of merit list? Must an acting CoP have similar credentials to the substantive CoP?

“Is it that you already have a candidate in mind and will tailor it to their qualifications?”

He cited a 2021 ruling by High Court judge Nadia Kangaloo in a case brought by activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj that said such nominations should go to Parliament for debate.

Hosein complained the bill did not limit how long a person could act as CoP without MPs’ oversight. He recalled 230 acting appointments as CoP or DCP since 2009.

“There will be someone there acting for very long periods of time.

“Why is the Government favouring acting appointments?”

Hosein asked why the Government had not sought to allow unscrutinised appointments of up to just five-seven days, after which period the nomination would go to Parliament.

He referred to a recent press ad for a new CoP, following a year’s extension given to CoP Erla Harewood-Christopher on her reaching retirement age last year.

“Maybe the Government can tell us if Mrs Harewood-Christopher is going to get an extension or not.”

Saying the issue required the Government to retain public trust and confidence, he referred to the Prime Minister’s being at President’s House when a PSC’s order of merit list for CoP was withdrawn, citing a news report of the PM saying he had been present.

Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds said Harewood-Christopher had wanted to go to a police chief’s conference in The Bahamas for two-three days, but the process for getting a temporary replacement was “administratively cumbersome,” involving a notification by the President and debate in Parliament.

He said a nominee for acting CoP was not a stranger who has suddenly appeared, but someone the PSC had already vetted, screened and found to be decent, for his existing post.

Hinds also said that even for an acting CoP, the PSC already has an order of merit list of nominees.

He pointed out that the former People’s Partnership government had repeatedly named Stephen Williams acting CoP for several six-month stints.

Hinds accused the Opposition of “obstructionist and obscurantist behaviour.” He alleged Persad-Bissessar has stopped development, but Naparima MP Rodney Charles rose to defend her. Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal said to debate an acting appointment has never taken much time in Parliament, even as he dared the Government to name one person whose nomination had been blocked in this way.

Saying the bill was befuddling, he said, “They may be up to something we don’t know about. What are you coming to test today?”

He asked if the Government, in the bill, was trying to test the resolve of Persad-Bissessar or himself.

Moonilal said it seemed that in the bill the Government was counting how many opposition votes it could get, as he assured it was none.

He charged, “They are here to play games. Is there someone with less seniority, a constable you want to marshal into office?”

Armour, in the committee stage, presented an amendment to propose the CoP acting appointments be limited to 21 days, after which theywould require MP’s affirmative resolution, but the Opposition voted against the bill.