At the end of 2016 Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams trumpeted the fall in the rate of certain serious crimes in the country for the year. His statistics brought little comfort to the average citizen who remains very concerned, and even fearful about the arbitrary, brutal violence that has come to characterise life in Trinidad and Tobago. The fact that the 462 persons (that we know of) were murdered for the year and that rate is the highest in six years, does little to add strength to Williams's reliance on statistics to show that the police have done well over the past year.
Citizens feel helpless against the well-armed criminal. Social media have been swamped in recent times with photographs of modern high-tech weapons that have become common-place in the hands showing-off gang members. Despite the fact that we hear of modern technology and equipment being made available to our Customs and Coast Guard illegal guns seem able to penetrate our borders with alarming and unacceptable ease.
Businessmen and professionals, big and small from all walks of life who deal with cash on a daily basis feel vulnerable and are constantly in fear that tomorrow they, their
businesses or their homes could be the targets of these highly-armed bandits. Some of the fearful have ill-advisedly purchased and are in possession of illegal firearms. They do so because there is the constant belief that the Commissioner of Police will not grant them a Firearm User's Licence, not because they fail to meet the qualifications under the Firearms Act, but because "he just is not granting any licence."
Speaking to different groups of businessmen in recent times, the refrain has been constant. Persons have had applications for licences pending for years at the office of the Commissioner of Police without any final action being taken on them, either by way of a refusal or the granting of the licence. Applicants have gone through all the preliminary steps i.e. submitting the required medical reports, being interviewed along with their spouse and having their homes inspected, only to languish for years without a final response, yea or nay, by the Office of the Commissioner of Police. Some applicants believe, from speaking to various other successful applicants, that the obtaining of an FUL depends upon various extra-statutory factors e.g. who you know, who knows you, which firearms dealer you use to push through your application or other factors which I prefer not to mention here.
This state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory. There is a need for an acceptable level of transparency in the granting licences. The population should have information e.g. in the last ten years how many applications were made by and were granted to private individuals as well as how many applications were refused.
The law gives every citizen the right to apply for a licence.
Under Section 17 of the Firearms Act, the grant or refusal of a licence is at the discretion of Commissioner of Police.
And under Section 22 of the Act a citizen applicant has a right of appeal from the decision of the Commissioner of Police to an independent Firearms Appeal Board. The Firearms Appeal Board's statutory function is supposed to operate as check or balance on the Commissioner of Police's exercise of his discretion. But the Board cannot perform this function if the Commissioner fails or refuses to exercise his discretion in relation to an application. Persons who are going for years without a decision on their application are in effect being denied a right of appeal to the Firearms Appeal Board, which right has been bestowed on them by Parliament.
The law recognises that an office holder:
(i) who is entrusted with statutory functions is not entitled to ignore his powers and duties;
(ii) who defers a whole class of applications without good reason may be seen as acting unlawfully and engaging in an abdication of his legislative function and
(iii) who unduly delays the exercise of a statutory function may be deemed to be unlawfully frustrating the legislative purpose.
In relation to all those licences applications that have been pending before the Commissioner for years the Commissioner may be found to be acting unlawfully.
This situation cannot be allowed continue. The failure to treat with applications and applicants fairly and efficiently is related to the public's perception of the fairness with which the Commissioner's office and by extension the police service in general treats with the public. The transparency with which applications are dealt with is also related to the level of confidence the public has in the office of Commissioner and the police service in general.
Does the present Commissioner care about this?
Time will tell.