Policeman Duane O'Connor is challenging Police Commissioner Gary Griffith's decision to suspend him for offering himself for screening for the People's National Movement (PNM) in the last local government election.
O'Connor, who is also a former calypso monarch, of Cocorite, St James, is represented by attorneys Renuka Rambhajan, Douglas Bayley and Anand Ramlogan, SC.
In a pre-action protocol letter sent last week, the attorneys said O'Connor's firm intention was to resign as a police officer if he was selected as the candidate for St Ann's River South. He was not selected.
The letter said the screening was a private matter and at no point did he publicly show support for any party. The letter said he was assured by the PNM's screening committee that the process was confidential and only when a successful candidate was chosen and finalised, would the identity of that person be made public.
He said it was on that assurance that he offered himself for screening. "However, having not been selected, he was no longer obliged to do so. It is axiomatic, therefore, that had he been selected and then required to campaign, he would have had to resign from the TTPS," Rambhajan said.
On April 29, O'Connor received a notice that alleged he presented himself as a nominee to be screened at the 2019 local government election. He was given seven days to provide a written explanation. Before he could respond, he asked for the name of the person who received the complaint, who made the complaint, and a record of the complaint.
He also reminded of the police service regulations which says that should he not provide a response, he was deemed to have denied the allegation.
On July 2, O'Connor received notice that he was charged for "partisanship" contrary to the regulations. His disciplinary tribunal matter was listed for July 6. The hearing of the tribunal has been adjourned pending disclosure of the information asked for by the lawyers. He was also charged with publishing a personal comment on local and administrative matters without the permission of the commissioner.
O'Connor also denied this since the post did not emanate from his Facebook account. He intends to seek constitutional relief and, according to the letter, every citizen has a right to join political parties, express political views, and a general right of thought and expression. Rambhajan said in order to maintain the independence of the police service, police officers are specifically exempt from being able to express open or public political views, to express political partisanship, or to hold political office while they are serving members.
She said it was clear that the right to join political parties and of political expression must be construed as narrowly as possible, but added that it was clear that Parliament must have intended, in eroding the fundamental rights of police officers as citizens of TT, to ensure they did not publicly make any statements of support to political parties.
"It is clear that our client did not publicly show support or partisanship to any political party nor make any statements or expressions of such," the letter said, adding that the imposition of disciplinary proceedings against O'Connor was a clear breach of his rights.
"The mere fact that he privately submitted nomination papers to run as a candidate in an election does not infringe upon sections 40 and/or139 of the Police Service Act," Rambhajan said, adding that it would a disproportionate encroachment to require a police officer to resign first, before submitting nomination papers, with no guarantee that he would even be selected. That, she said, would lead to an absurd outcome. She also said the submission of nomination papers cannot constitute the "making of any public expressions of political and sectarian opinions." The disciplinary tribunal hearing will now be convened on July 16.
On June 18, Griffith in announcing O'Connor's suspension at a media briefing said the political persuasion of a police officer must not be promoted through any public means as it could compromise their image as officers of the law.
“Very few police officers believe it is their constitutional right to openly show support for a political party. Every one of my police officers has their right to support who they choose, but that must be done and remain in here.
“At any time, any police officer in or out of uniform decides to openly condemn or support a political party, or even decide to go up as a candidate and boast on the front page (of a newspaper) that he supports the philosophy and role and function and principles of a political party, those are the types of police officers that must be immediately disciplined,” Griffith said.