SSA: Police-seized guns returning to criminals’ hands

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

FILE PHOTO: Guns and ammunition seized by police at a warehouse in March. The 2020 Strategic Services Agency report claims that some of the weapons, including high-powered rifles, seized by police are findin their way back to the hands of criminals. – TTPS

ILLICIT firearms seized by the police from violent criminals are making their way back into the hands of gang members, lamented the Strategic Services Agency annual report 2020, laid in the Senate on Tuesday.

“Despite a number of illegal weapon and ammunition seizures, there remains the unabated import of several updated and even more sophisticated weapons. As such, several gangs now have in their possession weapons, which are automatic.

“These need to be destroyed, as intelligence reports reveal some seized firearms do make it back onto the streets, in the hands of criminals.”

Former commissioner of police (CoP) Gary Griffith on Wednesday told Newsday that during his tenure he had not received any formal complaints from officers of any firearms gone missing, but nevertheless had instructed an audit by firearms specialist Paul Nahous.

Griffith said, “When I was commissioner, I had no knowledge of that. We had intelligence reports that there was a possibility that sometimes you had weapons seized by the police that were in the stations that could be rented to criminals and then be returned. That was all hearsay. We had no evidence to verify such.

“I put a directive to start getting all seized weapons at the stations to come to the Police Academy for safe-keeping or to be destroyed if they were not going to be used as (courtroom) evidence.”

He reiterated that he had never been notified of seized weapons going missing. “I didn’t have confirmation. To have that would have meant that weapons would be stolen and recorded as being stolen after being seized by the police. I can’t recall any such reports coming to me that weapons were stolen.”

Griffith said he set up an audit team led by Nahous whose stint was then ended after Griffith had left his post, by the successive police leadership.

“The audit was to verify that all the weapons that were seized were actually in the police stations and not lost or given to criminal elements.”

Nahous told Newsday that during his audit he had visited police stations nationwide, but had found many property rooms which housed seized firearms to be “a total mess.”

He said decades of firearms were stored in these facilities. Nahous said he had sent some of those firearms to be destroyed, although this was a very bureaucratic process usually involving first obtaining permission from several agencies of the State. He said that in his confidential 50-page audit report, he had made recommendations for better storage of seized firearms.

Despite property rooms seemingly overwhelmed, Nahous said they were very well secured by officers known as property keepers who ran strict regimes.

Newsday asked if firearms might leak out from those property rooms.

Nahous replied, “It is not impossible. I didn’t see it. It would surprise me if those guns leaked out.”

However, he offered another suggestion as to how seized firearms could find their way back to criminals.

“It would be very easy for a police officer to seize a firearm but for this not to go to the property room.”

Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds commented on the SSA’s claims of some seized guns going back into criminals hands, saying, “Yes, that is true.”

“There are a number of reasons and ways in which guns can get into the hands of criminals.

“Unfortunately, we, like every other country in the world, have had multiple examples of personnel within law enforcement, within the protective services, who are complicit in criminal activity. Trinidad and Tobago is not immune.

“Persons might seize firearms from criminals, never report it to officialdom, and make it available to others.” He recalled firearms going missing from police stations, security guards and even once the Forensic Science Centre, plus unconfirmed reports of individuals of dubious character possessing licensed firearms.

Hinds said he joined calls by the Prime Minister and CoP for citizens to share information with the police to help in the seizure of illegal guns.

“The life you save may be your own.”

Newsday asked if more penalties were needed for any such corrupt acts by certain police officers, but Hinds noted the seriousness of the fallout of public exposure.

“Typically they would lose their jobs, they would suffer ignominy, they would be made ashamed – their families, their wives, their children and society would pour scorn upon them.”

Again saying this was not just a problem in TT, Hinds recalled the FBI once arresting 52 corrupt police officers in California, while three DEA officers were once arrested in South America for drug trafficking. He said the issue was not so much one of penalties but human frailties.

Asked if new initiatives were needed to deter any police officers from giving guns to criminals, Hinds said, in 2019, the Government had brought legislation for more stringent measures against errant law enforcement officers, seemingly referring to an amendment to the Firearms Act.