Family threatens legal action over police tear-gas use

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Police prepare to fire tear gas at the Queen’s Park Savannah. Photo by Roger Jacob

ATTORNEYS for a family of four who took part in Sunday’s “Push Back” event at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, have signalled an intention to take legal action against the State over the police’s tear-gassing of the crowd.

The family was allegedly tear-gassed when riot police fired it as a crowd-control measure to disperse more than 300 people when the event became unruly.

They were protestingagainst the government’s handling of the covid19 pandemic and vaccine policy,

“They were participating in a peaceful ‘pray and reflect’ event,” said a letter written by Chaguanas West MP Dinesh Rambally.

The letter was addressed to acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob, who has been asked to justify the police decision to use tear gas on the crowd.

Also representing Javed Daniel, his wife Judine Bonaparte and their two children, four and five, are attorneys Prakash Ramadhar, Kiel Taklalsingh, Stefan Ramkissoon and Rhea Khan.

Rambally described the use of tear gas as “unjustified, excessive and indiscriminate,” and called on the acting commissioner to provide, in 28 days, a copy of the policy regulating the use of tear gas by the police service and the reason for using it on January 16.

Rambally also asked for any contemporaneous note and/or record cataloguing the use of and justification for deploying tear gas at the event and the identity of the police officer who authorised its use.

He told Jacob if there was no response to the requests, a civil claim for trespass and assault and battery will be filed in the High Court.

Rambally said more disturbing than the use of the tear gas was that there were no medical personnel or equipment present at the time the police decided to use it.

“The use of tear gas on our clients, in the manner aforementioned, constitutes prima facie tortious assault and battery upon our clients. The continued threat of tear gas being used by the police in the context of my clients’ presence at the Queen’s Park Savannah while they were merely engaging in reverent prayer and reflection, raises a myriad of constitutional concerns for which our client intends to take advice.”

He also said they intend to write the Attorney General.

Rambally’s letter said the family, like all citizens, enjoyed the right of freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of movement.

He also said from their observations, those who were at the Savannah on Sunday were “not involved in any illegal, hostile or disruptive activities.”

“There was no destruction of public property, acts of violence or unruly behaviour that could justify either police intervention or the deployment of forceful crowd suppression tactics.

“At no point in time were our clients warned or told by police officers that they were engaged in illegal activity or that their conduct constituted a threat to public order or was infringing any law, regulation or policy,” he added.

Rambally’s letter said “without prior notice, rhyme or reason” the police began to “indiscriminately” fire canisters of tear gas at the protesters.

He said the family tried to flee the area as fast and best they could, but the tear gas surrounded them in seconds as the area was overwhelmed with the noxious substance.

“The exposure to the said gas traumatised our clients. They experienced severe difficulty in breathing.”

The children, he added, began screaming in fear and pain and the family immediately began feeling nauseous while experiencing a burning sensation in their lungs and eyes.

“The children described that they felt as if they were choking and at the same time wanting to throw up.”

The letter said several people rushed to their aid with water to wash their faces and eyes but the symptoms continued for 48 hours.

The children now fear going out in public or going to the Savannah while the elder child, who once imagined being a police officer, reportedly no longer wants to become one as he feels the “police are bad guys because they make smoke burn your eyes.”

The parents have sought counselling for the children and a medical report is expected to be sent to the police, the letter said.

“The jurisprudence on the use of tear gas has established that the burden of necessitous infliction of harm on an individual by a public officer in the purported performance of public functions in the public interest should be borne by the said public officer,” the letter further advised.

Jacob has publicly defended his officers’ use of tear gas on the crowd, saying it was “more than warranted.” He said tear gas was used when people fail to comply with the police’s instructions and, in keeping with the service’s use-of-force policy, it reached the level to warrant the deployment of three canisters on Sunday.

Jacob said from what was reported to him, the crowd refused to disperse and some started pelting bottles at the police, and that is when the tear gas was fired.

In Parliament on Wednesday, the Prime Minister addressed questions on the use of tear gas for crowd control.

Dr Rowley called on parents and guardians to think before putting their young children in harm’s way.

The Prime Minister said the police had a use-of-force policy which included using tear gas as a crowd-control measure.

In response to a question posed by MP Rodney Charles on the presence of children, Rowley said he did not know of any young children who made decisions to “go out and break the law, causing the police to fire tear gas on them.

“If you are concerned about young children that you have,” he said, “you as a parent must be concerned about not putting your children in harm’s way.”


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