Although Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley says police have no power to shut down banks and supermarkets, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith maintains his officers can intervene in situations where too many people are congregating to save lives during the current “Stay-at-Home” COVID-19 measures.
Griffith made his position clear at a press conference at the T&T Police Service Administration Building yesterday, hours after Rowley said he (Griffith) did not have the authority to do so. Griffith justified his position by saying citizens who have been congregating in large numbers at some establishments represent a “clear and present danger” as the State battles the virus’ spread.
He said police have been mandated to enforce the Public Health Ordinance (COVID-19 Regulations) of 2020, which prohibits gatherings of more than five people and said police may be forced to close banks, supermarkets and markets if citizens to do no adhere to the strict guidelines.
“The biggest concern for the police to ensure that we adhere to our objective, as stated by the chair of the National Security Council, is the immediate problem we have now. There is a clear and present danger of hundreds of persons assembling outside these institutions, more so the banks, health centres, markets and groceries and if this continues, all of the work of the Prime Minister has spoken about can go to nought,” Griffith said.
Having visited several operations around Port-of-Spain yesterday, Griffith said he met crowds at the entrances, the majority of them elderly citizens who are at greater risk of developing severe cases of the virus, and the police were forced to take measures to ensure social distance and the peace was kept at some of the venues where citizens were frustrated at having to wait long hours to conduct business.
“Either we arrest all the persons, the hundreds of them in front of every single bank or shut down what is causing the problem. And I would take the decision to do so,” Griffith said, noting the shutdowns will be temporary measures to rectify the crowding issue. He explained, however, that if he decides to shut down any service, it would be done after consulting with Rowley as the chairman of the National Security Council. But he questioned which scenario was better.
“I am insisting that all these persons who have that degree of responsibility, the managers of every bank, financial institution, health centre, your responsibility is not only inside but externally as well,” he appealed to the managers of the businesses involved.
Griffith was also annoyed that some people’s focus was on someone leaving their homes at 2 am to exercise rather than those gathering outside businesses, as in his view this was a “ticking time bomb” as they were also creating situations where there could be a rampant spread of the virus.
“It seems that some people are trying their best to provide a wedge between the relevant agencies and institutions or the relevant leaders of this country. I think that is very unfortunate. Certain persons may be trying to sing for their suppers, like bloggers, doing all that they can to try to shove a wedge and wanting to make the Government feel that they are relevant. This serves absolutely no purpose towards what we are dealing with.”
He identified a blogger, whom he said is paid $20,000 per month to carry out Government’s communications, saying she accused him of wanting to spread COVID-19.
“This is damning, it is mischievous, it is misleading and bordering on treachery and treason,” he said.
Griffith reiterated that as the State makes the necessary policies to combat the virus, the police can only do what is lawful. He said if the police act on policies that are not in law, T&T would become a police state. He said neither Rowley nor National Security Minister Stuart Young spoke about taking that course and he, as Commissioner, would not.
However, he said it was his responsibility to educate citizens on their rights and the police’s function. He said police were not granted additional powers to arrest anyone who left their homes as there is no curfew in place.
“We have a job to do; a very critical job. This is a situation in our country where lives could be lost and we do not have time to play games and persons trying to play with words between the Prime Minister, the Minister of National Security and the Commissioner of Police. We are all on the same page.”