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Kaleidoscope of strange things . . .

Public prosecutors and the police are probably the most powerful officials in the justice system.

In 2009, former chief of police in South Africa and Interpol chief Jackie Selebi was brought before the court facing three corruption charges, one of which related to his connection with a crime boss. The government was attempting to prove Selebi had received payments and gifts from crime boss Glenn Agliotti to shield him and his gang from investigations into his drug dealing and other criminal enterprises.

The crime boss himself testified before the court about bankrolling the former commissioner in the amount of 1.2 million rands in return for tip-offs, one of which was a dossier detailing British intelligence investigations into the crime boss’ drug exports to Britain. Interestingly, the commissioner himself had publicly claimed the crime boss as his friend and according to him when quizzed by the Press, “finished and klaar”, meaning “that’s it” [Afrikaan].

That the friendship preceded his appointment to the post is irrelevant. We fail to appreciate that whether or not we are engaged in wrongdoings, public perception is critical for persons in public life!

Curiously too, the public prosecutor who attempted to have the police commissioner arrested was inexplicably fired and replaced with his deputy. But the office of the director of public prosecution (DPP) is a political issue, for he is appointed by the political executive. And whereas many directors would insist they are constitutionally independent with a legal mandate to prosecute without fear or favour, they must often tread carefully with the political class (exercising good judgement) or run the risk of removal from office.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the bizarre case of the Honourable Satnarine Sharma, chief justice of that country in 2007 is also cause for reflection. The circumstances of the case revolved around the alleged attempts of the chief justice to influence Chief Magistrate Sherman McNichols’ decision in the trial of former prime minister Basdeo Panday.

You would recall that Basdeo Panday was subsequently convicted for failing to disclose a London bank account under the rules of the Integrity Act. The DPP’s decision to bring charges against then chief justice Sharma was apparently also under scrutiny, and tremendous political pressure was exerted on that office to drop charges against the chief justice.

In the ensuing shenanigans that followed, Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicholas refused to bear witness against the chief justice and the case had to be discontinued.

In that regard, although the DPP’s decision to prosecute a company, or a person in public life may have damning consequences for the people who depend on the company –– the wider economy and national security –– justice must always be seen to be done. But unfortunately, such considerations are routine elements in a decision to act or not to act. It is for this reason that in many jurisdictions, persons argue that some are simply too big to prosecute.

I, of course, do not accept this, and often argue we need to fry the “big fish” and sometimes let the sardines go free. That would have a greater impact on society than prosecuting small fry.

Corruption takes place even among those whom we expect to protect us and be defined by high moral ethics. So that the failure to place a high premium on that pillar of the national integrity system and ensure the police and the office of the DPP –– which find themselves in vulnerable positions –– are afforded a similar if not equal fortification (inclusive of attractive salaries).

We ought also to be concerned with existing controls on, or accountability for, the routine decisions of public prosecutors and the director of public prosecutions. Why? Because their legal responsibility is not limited to representing the state in seeking convictions. It is also about the pursuit of justice wherever the road ultimately leads.

So their genuine independence, not paper independence, is imperative.

Critics have also contended that far too often public prosecutors exercise their constitutional and legal discretion “haphazardly at worst and arbitrarily at best”, resulting in inequitable treatment of both victims and defendant, and in the end justice suffers. Indeed it has been argued that this official, who exercises some of the most profound powers of government, remains perhaps the most thoroughly free to exercise individual discretion when not handicapped by the political executive.

Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary that political interference does not occur, I was pleased to hear from Prime Minister Freundel Stuart that the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and that of the Auditor General will be further safeguarded.

The justice system also depends on adequate police structures and operations. Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic, author of Fallen Blue Knights: Controlling Police Corruption, defines police corruption as an action or omission, a promise of action or omission, or an attempted action or omission, committed by the police and which is a manifestation of the misuse of their official position. She argues that this is motivated primarily by personal gain.

She therefore posed a simple but important question. Given our practice of routinely giving gifts to service providers like teachers, post office workers, sanitation workers and so on, especially at Christmas time, is the same generally a socially acceptable way of expressing our satisfaction with a small gift to be considered a bribe, a completely unacceptable practice when extended towards a police officer? The author answered her own question.

“. . . The true differentiation lies in what the officers do, how extensive their powers are, and what the nature of their job is. Police officers are public servants entrusted with an extensive set of powers and wide discretion in the exercise of their duties . . . . Their power and lack of supervision coupled with their frequent contact with people caught violating the law create numerous opportunities for corruption and other types of abuse.

“Police officers are expected to make objective and unbiased discretionary choices; their decisions on how to proceed at a crime scene should not be affected by who has recently paid for their meal or whether someone has slipped them a $20 bill . . . .”

But this represents just a tip of the iceberg. For police officers worldwide also extort brides in various forms from citizens, as well as engage in extrajudicial killings as recent commissions of inquiries suggest. This result in the neglect and abuse of their official duties which ultimately places citizens at risk.

Any driver or citizen may be arbitrarily stopped on the street and questioned. Therefore like all other public officials, police officers must be made accountable
for their actions.

Other forms of police misconduct also take place. For example, in January, 2016, four police officers were arrested for attempting to bribe a Chinese businessman in Trinidad and Tobago. This was the end result of the work of a police oversight body –– the Professional Standards Bureau, following allegations of attempted bribery to the tune of $53,000 and the alleged robbery of the same businessman of jewellery.

Let us also not forget to assess the political interference among the police. Too often, the high command of the force (appointed on the advice of the chief executive) is played like a football, weaving and bopping as administrations change. We see the tragedy of internal conflict between and among the top brass of the force, police commissioners sent on long leave as a new administration is sworn into office, senior officers sidelined because of their perceived support for opposition political parties or transferred, deserving officers not promoted, and the like.

Police high command also involve themselves directly in overt partisan politics which makes for a tremendous amount of discomfort among the citizenry. For example, both the OAS and Commonwealth Observation Missions to the December, 2015 general election in St Vincent and the Grenadines expressed their concerns with the involvement of the police in election-related activities.   

According to the reports, some police officers, including at the highest level of the police force (the police commissioner for example was photographed in full party paraphernalia) wore political party colours while on duty at political rallies. While the commissioner informed the missions that this practice permitted the police to blend in with those they protected, this position seems at variance with good governance practices.

The Commonwealth Observer Mission admonished the police, given what it saw as the potential to undermine public trust, that “police officers should at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of their duties or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may so interfere”.

As Transparency International concludes, “the probity and high standards of the police are essential to protect citizens and carry out their duties in the community. A breakdown in the integrity of the police, even if only by a small minority, is hugely damaging to public confidence in that institution and society”.

So perhaps we need to consider the establishment of an independent Police Integrity Commission among other things that would provide a standing platform to investigate issues of police corruption and other forms of police misuse of office.

I don’t like the idea of something where you have to depend upon the integrity of the man and not the integrity of the institution.

–– Dwight D. Eisenhower.

(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)

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