The Police Act was withdrawn from the House of Assembly last Thursday after residents expressed concerns over many of the proposed changes to the act. A scaled-back version is expected to be introduced today. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley moved to withdraw the controversial Police Act 2023 last Thursday in the House of Assembly, saying that he would re-introduce a scaled-down bill today that would allow police to conduct DNA testing with warrants but would omit previously proposed amendments that critics have said could compromise civil rights.

HOA members subsequently voted in favor of the motion, and the Police Act was withdrawn.

The move came despite Cabinet’s previous approval of the bill on Jan. 31, when Cabinet members decided to send it to the HOA. Two days later, Dr. Wheatley introduced the bill in the House after members voted to add it to the agenda for the day.

Debate was subsequently scheduled for Feb. 11, but it was postponed after the bill drew criticism from residents who suggested that certain provisions — including sections broadening police officers’ power to make arrests without warrants and to collect physical evidence from detainees — could threaten civil liberties.

The premier explained at the time that the bill — which he said he had introduced on behalf of Governor John Rankin — included new amendments added after a series of previous public consultations.

Accordingly, he said, the debate would be postponed to allow for more discussions and further review.

“We had an outcry from the community, and rightly so, because there were some amendments made to the bill which were troubling to the public,” he said at the time.

New bill

When he withdrew the bill last Thursday, the premier proposed to come back to the HOA today with a smaller amendment that would allow DNA testing with warrants based on a “good cause.”

“We recognise that there is an area of this bill that is vitally important to solving our unsolved murders, among other areas,” he explained. “We recognise that it’s important to make at least an amendment to the principal act to accommodate [warrants] … to be able to compel someone to provide intimate samples [for DNA testing].”

During the meeting last Thursday, Opposition Leader Julian Fraser backed the premier’s motion to withdraw the act, expressing concern over sections including provisions that would allow police to take samples without warrants or consent.

“It is not wise for us to proceed with this bill,” he said.

Call for consultations

Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn also supported the withdrawal of the bill, and he encouraged more public consultations around legislation in general.

“I believe it’s important for us to ensure that the public is fully engaged in these pieces of legislation that will impact their lives and livelihoods,” he said. “We cannot support anything that infringes on the civil liberties of the individual citizens of this territory.”

Government backbencher Vincent Wheatley also supported the withdrawal, saying that he had never seen “so much concern over a piece of legislation.”

“People in the community lost confidence that the police will exercise good judgment and are very concerned this had the potential for greater abuse,” he said.

Other legislators who voiced support of the withdrawal included Deputy Premier Kye Rymer, Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull, and backbencher Carvin Malone.

During a press conference on Friday, Governor John Rankin expressed his hope that the HOA would return to the bill before the dissolution of the HOA, which is due by the end of the week.

He also argued that the changes in the Police Act 2023 were not new and were not “slipped in at the last moment” as implied by some lawmakers.

The recent delays were not the first for the bill, which would have replaced an act that was originally passed in 1986 and was most recently updated in 2013, the premier said last month.

“In 2015 the National Security Council considered and approved a new Police Act, and this bill was first introduced in the House of Assembly in 2018,” he said. “As security is a matter that falls under the remit of the governor, this bill would have been prepared through the collaboration of the Deputy Governor’s Office, the police [and] the attorney general with input from the director of public prosecutions. The premier brings the bill to the House of Assembly on behalf of the governor.”

The 2018 version of the bill, however, was not passed by the third HOA at the time, and it was introduced again under the current HOA shortly after the 2019 election.