We will be among the first to offer our support to the Royal Barbados Police Force in the quest to ensure that Barbadian citizenry lives in a peaceful and safe environment. Of course, to carry out their duties members of the Force must not only be possessed of the equipment to operate effectively but they must also have the legislative clout with which to function legally.
At a time when despite all assurances from authorities that the crime situation is under control, there is no doubt that this decade has seen more gun-related deaths and crime than at any other stage in post-Independent Barbados. The accessibility to illegal firearms on our streets is such that it has moved Commissioner of Police Tyrone Griffith to identify our ports of entry as among the main arteries through which weapons flow into Barbados. And one does not need statistics on paper to accept his word that the prevalence of illegal firearms in the hands of criminals is a cause for concern.
To the credit of the members of the Royal Barbados Police Force, they have been making some progress in prosecuting several persons caught with illegal firearms. But as is always the suggestion in such interdictions, the high volume seized is often an indicator of the high volume still on the streets. The work of the Royal Barbados Police Force is often not made any easier by the alacrity with which some serious offenders are allowed back on the streets by a judicial system that seems at odds with itself.
It is within such an environment that Government through Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite has sought to give the police additional powers through the Police (Amendment) Bill, 2018.
During the recent debate, Mr Brathwaite had this to say: “It is fair to say we now have a more difficult individual to deal with. In fact, it seems to me that we have many individuals who have adopted that kind of live hard, die hard policy. And when you are faced with these individuals you have to have new policies to intervene.” Most of the gun-related incidents, if not all, suggest that the Attorney General is right.
The amended legislation seeks to increase the statutory powers granted to the Royal Barbados Police Force to protect life and property of citizens, and to ensure peace and public order under the Act with the use of cordons and curfews, and “to provide for related matters”.
Among other things, it will give police the power to stop and search individuals or their property during a curfew or in a cordoned off area, upon “reasonable suspicion that the person has committed an arrestable offence”.
The legislation also gives the police force power to search a property in the area of a curfew between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. without a warrant once there is “reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed on the premises”.
Over the years motorists have been subjected to random stop and searches at roadblocks where there was no legal authority for arbitrary search but a legal obligation on motorists to stop at the direction of a police officer in uniform. Invariably, motorists always or often “gave permission” for their vehicles and their persons to be searched. Interestingly, the amended legislation has not sought to address that grey area but now legitimizes similar action within the period of a curfew between specific times and without a warrant.
During his contribution, former Attorney General and Opposition spokesman on matters related to the police and law and order in general, Mr Dale Marshall, raised a number of relevant and important concerns. His understandable peeve was that there was an absence of consultation with the Bar Association and the general public on the amendments to the law. It is true that generally laws are passed in Barbados without civil consultation and it would be quite cumbersome for consultation outside of Parliament on every piece of legislation. But Mr Marshall’s suggestion was that the amendments have such far-reaching consequences that there should have had greater consultation before reaching the Lower House.
The St Joseph MP also raised constitutional concerns with respect to the amendments. The Constitution of Barbados gives citizens certain rights with respect to their freedom of movement, association, property, being searched and detained. If any part of the amended legislation conflicts with the constitutional rights of citizens, where does that place the Police (Amendment) Bill, 2018?
Mr Marshall also raised the red flag on the possibility of the abuse of the legislation. What recourse is there for law-abiding citizens who might feel their rights trampled when and if the legislation is ever put into practice? What will be the circumstances and at what stage will a curfew be deemed necessary to be implemented? Will there be specific guidelines or designated circumstances governing the introduction of curfews? Is there the possibility that they can be arbitrarily introduced?
Perhaps if there had been greater public debate on this issue there would be fewer questions to ask at this stage. At the end of the day, though we support every effort by our police officers to wrestle criminality to the ground, we still acknowledge that both police and felons are human beings with varying degrees of imperfections and we do not wish a scenario where one evil is squashed and another created.