Conduct Unbecoming

By Raffique Shah
July 26, 2014

Raffique ShahWhen elephants fight, the grass gets trampled, says the African proverb. To paraphrase this, when two generals, one captain-turned-minister, and the acting Commissioner of Police lock horns over the contentious issue of soldiers patrolling the streets, a lowly ex-lieutenant should stay far from the heavyweight battle.

But I was never one to run from a fight. Having fired early salvos in the dispute, coming down in favour of the deployment troops, I will not retreat into a foxhole and evade the fire-fight, only to emerge when the body count is taken. I feel compelled to address the issue, hopefully for the final time, shedding some light where my seniors-by-rank see only darkness.

Major-Generals Ralph Brown (Ret) and Kenrick Maharaj, Captain/Minister Gary Griffith and Ag Commissioner Stephen Williams are, in my view, saying the same thing, but speaking in different languages. Therein lies the confusion that has led to some acrimonious exchanges that have triggered unease among many citizens. After all, these men are the “brass” that symbolise national security.

My understanding is that General Brown’s concern over the deployment of soldiers arose from reports that no one could say who had issued orders for large, well-armed contingents of soldiers to patrol the streets unaccompanied by police officers. There were reports that the Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Maharaj, knew nothing about the deployment—which Maharaj did not deny until a joint media briefing last week.

To compound the seeming chaos, executive members of the Police Social and Welfare Association, who are perceived as speaking on behalf of rank and file police officers, strongly and repeatedly condemned the soldiers-only patrols, and called on Commissioner Williams to take action against them.

Williams added to the confusion when he eventually spoke out (he said he had been out of the country). Using strong language, the Commissioner said he did not endorse what the soldiers were doing, that their actions were illegal, and that they should not wear masks (as some did).

What might have prompted Brown to speak out was when Williams said he would order his policemen to arrest soldiers who were breaking the law. That was a recipe for confrontation, the consequences of which no citizen would want to consider.

Imagine heavily armed soldiers on patrol somewhere in Laventille, and a police squad pulls up, the senior officer saying to the soldiers: you all are under arrest! Madness! But Williams’ pronouncement about the illegality of the soldiers’ activities brought us close to that showdown at sunrise or sunset or whenever.

While all these developments played out in public, the only senior army officer who attempted to clarify the situation was Colonel Smart, commanding officer of the Regiment, and that on a television show, not at an official media briefing. Minister Griffith stoutly defended the deployment of troops using incendiary language which only added to the perception of a “creeping military dictatorship”.

It was against this potentially explosive situation that Brown advised a “return to the barracks”. It was after Brown’s intervention, which called for the Prime Minister to meet with Griffith, Maharaj and Williams and thrash out their differences before any deployment, that the trio finally faced the media—something that should have been done before the brawls among the brass.

I had stated my position earlier: I support the deployment of soldiers in the so-called hot spots because their presence serves as a deterrent to the gangland lawlessness that has descended on those communities. Further, the troops provide a security blanket for law-abiding residents, and most of all for children who can now engage in vacation activities they did not dare consider when gunshots routinely punctuated the peace.

If the Defence Force’s intervention is executed intelligently, supported by good intelligence, it can also provide what is required for the police to arrest gangsters and seize armaments that have reduced many of these districts to war zones.

People may not know it, but police officers are afraid to enter some of these hell-holes, understandably so. They are not as adept with weapons as soldiers are, nor are they schooled in the tactics of urban warfare, which is what is required in dealing with today’s criminals.

Soldiers, because of their training, and under good leadership, will venture anywhere, matters not how dangerous the turf may be. It is no coincidence that since the soldiers established their presence in some “hot spots”, the murders and general lawlessness have declined precipitously.

Having said all of that, I return to General Brown’s concerns and the manner in which Minister Griffith and General Maharaj responded to them. At best, they were uncharitable to the retired CDS, and at worst disrespectful, which is conduct unbecoming of any officer.

What Brown sought through his open letter was to have those in authority—the political directorate and the Defence Force and police chiefs—speak and act in consonance, not dissonance. The police chief was threatening to lock up soldiers. The CDS was silent. The minister was loquacious.

As calls for the withdrawal of the troops heightened, only then did the joint-chiefs speak to the population with one voice. And they all cussed Brown for bringing them to the table. Not nice.

One thought on “Conduct Unbecoming”

  1. I need to add my piece to this public debate of this soldier/ police operation which has brought to bear in the public’s mind a kind of confusion that has never been seen before. In order to bake a good pie, the ingredients have to be in correct proportion with the proper timing to be added for a tasty result (a good tasting pie). Soldier/Police operations have always in my humble olin been well defined and rehearsed before public showing. The commander of the operations receives his briefing from the Chief, who in turn briefs his junior officers as well as the OR (Other Ranks). So, I think in this respect General Ralph Brown was forthright and correct in his ascertains, because laision with the Police is necessary and well communicated at the upper echelons, middle and lower echelons before they hit the road. It is for this reason, I draw a line between the three heads of security units. In their heads they do mean different things. Let me explain: The MNS (minister of national security) is a political appointment and in the delineation of his duties he has the responsibility to not only liaise with the Chief of Defence but also to have the CoP just as informed and in agreement with whatever operations they want to execute. This way you have Police buy-in and Army buy-in, each one knowing what his responsibility REALLY is. “Major-Generals Ralph Brown (Ret) and Kenrick Maharaj, Captain/Minister Gary Griffith and Ag Commissioner Stephen Williams are, in my view, saying the same thing”, no they are not and the public know their views. Problem – the minister is an ex-soldier who thinks in terms of a soldier, talks like a soldier and tries to be a soldier in the execution of his ministerial duties, at the same time he wants to hold on to his political views and behavior. In so doing he will ALWAYS step on other people’s toes because he wants to be everything.
    The Defence Chief is a person who echoes the belief of the Attorney General, to give soldiers police powers to search and arrest civilians (just as the police). This runs counter to the
    Defence Act and Police service regulations. The Defence by nature of the Act, must be called upon by the Police to accompany them to arrest and incarcerate civilians, if soldiers operate counter to that, then they would be operating outside of their legal bounds. That is why the CoP was acting within the bounds of his commission to say what he said to the soldiers. Political expediency should NEVER cause us to act outside of our jurisdictions. When we do is when questions and answers arises that we have to go looking for remedial applications to cover our mistakes. This is the problem and that is why General Brown is absolutely correct and Yes, I am glad that he acted as the Adult is this situation. I wish more ‘seniors’ would do the same thing to correct some of the massive mistakes we see happening in our present environments that costs us so much pain, lives and sorrow. Hats off to you General Brown!

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