An Opposition legislator is questioning the current “rush” by Government to give police enormous powers to impose curfews and upend Barbadians’ constitutional rights.
In a measured but highly concerning tone, Senator Wilfred Abrahams today presented a strong argument to his Senate colleagues for an immediate halt to the pending legislation that would increase the powers of police to impose up to a 48-hour curfew in any district or area in Barbados.
In fact, Abrahams, a former president of the Bar Association, urged the Senate to “withdraw the bill for consultation” and not to “act with haste and regret it later”.
The Police Amendment Bill 2017, which has passed in the Lower House, will allow lawmen to, among other things, cordon areas, impose curfews restricting the movement of people, and significantly increase the power of cops to enter homes to carry out searches and other investigative operations.
Under the legislation, only a police officer with the rank of inspector or higher could cordon an area to conduct investigations such as searches of vehicles, and the 48-hour curfew of a district or parish requires the approval of the Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General.
Insisting there were clear reasons why these powers only existed in the Emergency Powers Act and required a two-thirds majority of Parliament or the entire Cabinet’s nod of approval, Abrahams said he was not convinced the planned amended legislation was even necessary.
The Opposition senator insisted he was not trying to protect criminals or hinder the police in their efforts to fight crime. However, he questioned the rush to pass the law in the dying days of the current administration.
In his contribution to today’s debate, Abrahams also warned the possibility existed where a future Commissioner of Police who did not have the high level of integrity of the current holder of the office could “perversely use” this power being given to him or her through the amendment.
Slamming the absence of consultation with stakeholders such as the Bar Association and non-governmental organizations, Abrahams likened the bill to using a sledgehammer to kill an ant.
Noting that Parliament is due to be dissolved on March 5, he explained that in such circumstances, the Government of Barbados would be the Cabinet.
“I am concerned about the safety of people but there is already legislation to deal with circumstances that can arise. The reason why the words ‘state of emergency’ spark certain [feelings] is [it] involves the suspending of the Constitution and suspending the constitutional rights of citizens.
“It is as serious a situation as it comes for the police to cordon off a neighbourhood, a district, a parish or a country . . . . You are suspending the rights that Barbadians expect that they would have and in that circumstance, those powers . . . should only be invoked in the most serious of circumstances and run the gamut of all the checks and balances provided by the constitution.”
Abrahams maintained “it would be an error” to take the powers of a state of emergency and put them into another piece of legislation “activated solely by the Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General”.
According to the Senator he, like other citizens, was concerned about increasing crime but he was not prepared to sacrifice his constitutional rights, particularly in circumstances where just two people would have the power to suspend citizens’ constitutional rights without the oversight of two thirds of Parliament or the Cabinet.
Abrahams raised the concerns even though Government Senator Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo, in leading off debate on the proposed amendment in the Upper House today, said there was no reason to fear abuse of power by police officers, who are to have full legislative cover to effect stop-and-search operations, including the search of vehicles under the Police (Amendment) Bill 2017.
Byer-Suckoo pointed out that in the cases where an area must be cordoned off, it could only be done by a senior officer, while a 48-hour curfew could only be instituted through consultation between the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Police.
“This [bill] is something that police have advised would allow them to better carry out their functions. They are from time to time called to respond to serious crimes. They have from time to time carried out stop-and-search procedures and may not have been authorized under the law to do so.
“The police have deemed that this is a process that could be useful as they try to identify the perpetrators of crime; and that they have the ability to stop and search and cordon off an area,” Byer-Suckoo told the Upper House.
Explaining some of the additions to the current laws, she said the Commissioner of Police in consultation with the Attorney General would have the power to institute a curfew for certain fixed periods so that the Force “can go in and get the evidence that they need and allow them to be better able to identify those persons responsible” for criminal activity.
“The amended legislation includes a definition of curfew meaning the imposition of a requirement for persons living in a particular area to only enter the premises in which they reside by a specified time and remain indoors for a specified period,” Byer-Suckoo explained to her Senate colleagues.
She also pointed out that the amended laws allow for the closure of businesses in the affected area and the ending of social gatherings for a specified time.
The legislation also addresses the matter of offensive weapons. Therefore, any firearm found in the Firearms Act is now so categorized in the Police Amendment Bill 2017 as well as flick knives, ratchet knives, switch blades, cutlasses, machetes or “any other article made or adapted to use for causing injury to a person or intended by a person having it for such use”.
“There is also a definition for serious violence through the use of a firearm or offensive weapon which results in a disturbance of the peace, serious bodily harm or death and includes multiple aggravated burglaries or multiple offences committed by a group of persons in an area,” the minister acknowledged.
“With the amendment, police now have the authority to stop and search a person where that officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person whom he or she is stopping has committed an arrestable offence, is committing an arrestable offence or is about to commit an arrestable offence; also to stop and search a vehicle which that officer has reasonable suspicion was used in the commission of an offence, will be used in the commission of an offence or is being used in the commission of an offence,” she added.