There appears to be a striking contradiction in two unique positions taken by Police Commissioner Gary Griffith about the authority of the police on private property, particularly in relation to combatting the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
One position came in early April, prior to the unfortunate police mishandling of the lewd, illicit splurge at the exclusive enclave known as Bayside Towers in Cocorite. The other came in September, some five months later, amidst a growing public outcry against the police inaction to what was clearly a grave breach of the public health regulations that seek to protect the population from the deadly virus.
So intense was Commissioner Griffith’s insistence on the integrity of his second position that he would go to the dangerous extent of being openly disrespectful to the Prime Minister, who is also head of the National Security Council.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had also questioned the police response to the Bayside Towers pool party where no one was charged, although there was a clear breach of the public health ordinance for social gatherings.
Griffith’s immediate reaction was to accuse Prime Minister Rowley of seeking to “throw the police under the bus”. He also publicly denounced the Prime Minister for being hypocritical in criticising the police since they were “unable to act on a law that was vague” as it related to activities on private properties.
But Prime Minister Rowley remained stoic in the face of this unbecoming onslaught. Prudently, he was able to stave off any further adversity by inviting Griffith to meet with him to iron out their differences. Griffith emerged from the meeting with the view that the talks were cordial and productive and that he “now understands the Prime Minister’s concerns about the behaviour of some citizens”. He said the police will continue to enforce the laws and encourage those in private spaces to be responsible.
But on April 11, the police chief issued a media release clearly establishing that as far as he was concerned there was no vagueness in the law concerning the authority of the police where private property is concerned in the current Covid-19 environment.
He said: “To those who believe that the police do not have the authority to stop activities on private property that can affect lives during Covid-19. YES WE CAN.”
Contrast that with Griffith’s statement on September 9, in the midst of the Bayside Towers pool party controversy.
In that more recent statement, Griffith said that upon receiving complaints about the poolside party, it was difficult for the police to intervene because the gated Bayside Towers is private property and the regulations under which the police were operating are unclear and do not address gatherings on private property.
But expanding on that clearly contrary position on April 11, Police Commissioner Griffith sought to disabuse the minds of those people who were advising that the police had no authority to prevent persons from having such events as “Covid house parties” on private property.
He said: “In the same manner that banks and supermarkets’ representatives understood the authority that the police have, and they adhered to what is required, the CoP is humbly asking all responsible citizens not to be baited with the false perception that they can do as they please during this period, based on the fact that it is in a private home.”
To reinforce his position, Commissioner Griffith also warned the public about a number of options he can and would use with regard to actions taken by persons, “even in their own homes”, that can affect the lives of others during this period. He listed those options, as follows:
• Public Health Ordinance— Section 133—giving police the right to enter any land or building to save lives.
• Public Nuisance—Section 70 of the Summary Offences Act, Chapter 11:02.
• Based on neighbours sending complaints to the police of excess noise, the police can intervene and stop such events due to noise pollution contrary to the EMA Act, Section 51.
• If the police are aware, via intelligence, that there is an event, even on private property, of illegal activities, be it human trafficking, drugs on premises, lewd dancing etc, they can acquire a warrant and would do so and get it in minutes, and would indeed raid the said premises as given such authority in the Summary Courts Act, Chapter 4:20, Section 41.
• The TTPS would also be waiting for such individuals who leave such events and would be greeting them via roadblocks, whereby breathalysers and searches of their vehicles would also take place.
Notwithstanding the circumstances that may have caused Police Commissioner Griffith to so drastically change his position between April and September, it is the assurance he gave in the last part of his early April statement that he must rigorously pursue in the national interest.
He pledged to fulfil the role of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service to ensure the security and safety of the national community, and to “examine the horns” of those who seek every angle to find loopholes that do nothing to advance the outcome of ensuring the virus is eradicated.
And as he affirmed following his meeting with the Prime Minister, the Bayside Towers controversy is now “water under the bridge”.
We can only hope and pray that the bridge in question does not lead to further coronavirus infections and death.
Errol S Pilgrim