Change is needed. Whether they are the right changes, fast changes or far enough changes, will always be a matter for debate.
However, what is certain is that the criminal justice system needs reform. And while it may be convenient to ascribe blame on one component of this integral system, those who do so either lack basic working knowledge of the system or are simply mischievously propelling an agenda—as no one component is blameless in all of this.
The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) is the primary law enforcement agency and by virtue of its roles and functions in the society, is the ‘poster boy’ of the criminal justice system.
Consequently, many of the problems that have led to a poor public perception of the criminal justice system can be directly attributed to the TTPS. Whether or not that is fair, is another debate.
In this regard, regulating police conduct—particularly as it relates to police conduct during investigations, which on occasion can lead to prosecutions and convictions—is a fundamental pillar in the development of a robust criminal justice system, and this should concern not only the lawyers and the police, but every citizen of this country.
The Evidence (Amendment) Bill 2020, which is currently being debated in the Lower House of Parliament, is one of the most pivotal bills to be debated in recent times.
Those familiar with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE), the legislative framework for the powers of police officers in England and Wales, would appreciate the intention and subsequent success of PACE in standardising and professionalizing police work.
The Evidence (Amendment) Bill 2020 is remarkably similar to the PACE both in structure and in substance. By way of brief history for context, PACE came about as a result of social turbulence precipitated by ‘a loss of confidence’ in the police—as reported by Lord Scarman, a highly-regarded jurist.
One of the recommendations of the Scarman Report was to improve the trust between the population and the police. As time went by, further reports such as the ‘McPherson’s report’ and the ‘After the Riots report’ sought to build on the developments achieved from the PACE, with further recommendations to improve the relationship between the police and the population.
One can juxtapose the circumstances which led to Lord Scarman’s report or, more recently, the After the Riots report with the teetering that has been taking place in Trinidad and Tobago within the past 15-20 years. One could easily find sociological similarities (such as the nationwide protests of June/July 2020) which reinforce the immediate need for legislative intervention like this.
Interestingly enough and at the risk of being a bit contradictory, the Evidence (Amendment) Bill does not introduce any fundamental changes to police powers. But rather it seeks to codify many police powers that already exists at common law in one document, while clearly defining the rights of the individual against the powers of the police.
The result therefore will be, rather than police powers existing in an ill-defined and somewhat piecemeal-like format, there will be a clear, cogent and concise legislative framework, which can now be accessed by any member of the public for his or her understanding.
The result should be a more educated and empowered society with the ability to identify and assist in the regulation of police conduct. This inevitably will lead to an improvement in the quality of service provided by the TTPS and inspire public confidence in our lawmen—and by extension, the criminal justice system.
In furtherance of the objective, this bill inherently empowers the judiciary to make a determination sooner as there are now clear stipulations that must be followed, as stated in this bill.
By way of example, the issue of interviewing and recording the statements of suspects has always been a contentious issue, as often it is the suspect’s words against that of the interviewing and/or investigating officer’s.
This bill seeks to introduce a provision where the interview of any person suspected of or charged with the commission of an offence must be recorded by video recording; and, if it is not practicable to record the interview by video recording, audio recording must be used.
It is well-known that a significant portion of the allegations of police misconduct surround the conduct of officers in and around the interview and recording of statements of suspects.
Hundreds of police man hours and judicial time are spent in courts as police officers are put to task over their conduct at this stage.
The use of an audio visual recording system will drastically reduce—if not eliminate altogether—allegations of police misconduct during interviews and witness statement for obvious reasons.
Further, hundreds of thousands if not millions of taxpayers’ dollars was spent outfitting rooms and buildings within the TTPS with audio-visual recording systems as far back as the early 2000s. Today, those rooms are still not utilised or, at best, are under-utilised because officers are unwilling to risk using it in the absence of ‘proper guidance’ in ‘black and white’. This bill provides that ‘black and white’.
There is no perfect legislation, but this bill is necessary and will be largely successful and instrumental in bringing the TTPS into 21st century modern policing.
At a time when public confidence in the TTPS is low and the mechanisms for police accountability seem convoluted and arbitrary, this legislation is a welcomed step in the right direction.
Police officers will be protected from unsubstantiated allegations, the rights of the individual will be protected, and the criminal justice system will be improved.