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Prime Minister's Address to the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police - May 21, 2001

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To the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police

It is my very, very special pleasure to welcome all of you here this morning.  As we have been told over and over, we offer the surroundings here in St Lucia, which I guarantee will provide the atmosphere conducive to your deliberations.  Such a distinguished gathering of Commissioners of Police from the entire Caribbean are in St Lucia at this time is heartwarming, and it is a special satisfaction that I am here with you today.  Permit me however, to single out one special Commissioner of Police, and that is Commissioner Grantley Watson.  Grantley and I sat together at the Cave Hill Campus for many years - about two to three years - and to this day I own a copy of the constitution of Barbados with Grantley’s signature on the front page.  So it is a very, very, very, special pleasure that I welcome him to St Lucia, and if I may add, it has nothing to do with recent events in Barbados.

Commissioners, today I want to talk to as a politician and share some thoughts with you and to do this I am going to abandon my formal text and perhaps address some themes that have been mentioned, but other themes that have not been addressed today.  It is going to be a speech without a common thread, and I really want to focus on just about four issues.  The spectra of fear alluded to by the Assistant Secretary General of CARICOM, My challenge to you, is to return to the streets and reclaim the communities that have been abandoned throughout the Caribbean and I want to share some thoughts with you on community policing and perhaps often unorthodox thoughts on the issue of the war on drugs.

I agree that there is a fear or there a spectra haunting our societies - a fear that our society, our institutions will be overwhelmed by crime.  There are many in our midst who believe that Governments and their Police Forces have become impotent, that these islands are becoming ungovernable as the onslaught by criminals intensify.  The very great danger is, that the quality of life, the quality of the society that we are seeking to construct will be judged on issues of how effective we are on the battle against crime.  I do not have to tell you that this benchmark is unfair, is unjustified, but it is real for a society that once knew peace, especially coming out of the extraordinary history that we all have shared.     I want to tell you that I do not share these views and the fears because I believe that the problems can be tackled. But I equally believe that these problems cannot be resolved by unleashing unmitigated savagery on our societies and on criminals. But there is a problem and we have to face it.

So concerned am I that I propose at the next meeting at the Heads of Government to invite my colleagues to consider the establishment of a commission on crime in our Caribbean Community, to examine the problem on crime and to advise how regional initiatives could help to control and to reduce crime.  I must add however, that this initiative must not of course, compromise ongoing initiatives at a national level.  Our governments need to support you but the bottom line is this, we all have a way of life or if we prefer a civilization to protect. 

I do not have to underscore how vital it is that we continue to be seen to be safe islands with relatively low crime rates, and you’ve been told already that to achieve this we need an efficient police force responsive to both the needs of citizens and visitors alike.  But I have to tell you that my own impression is that confidence in the police throughout the region is gradually diminishing and our citizens fear for their safety.   The traditional Police Force is not providing the quality of service citizens have come to expect.  Communities feel unprotected and abandoned.  Some communities are convinced that the resources allocated to the police forces are inadequate, and where adequate improperly utilized.  Then too there are others who complain about the attitude of some police officers.  Throughout the world there is serious complaint about the indiscipline and misconduct of road police officers.  It is felt by many that it is nearly impossible for the police to discipline itself.  I believe that the credibility of the framework in administration within which the police force operates is being questioned at all levels.  Everywhere the public appears to be dissatisfied with the handling of complaints against police officers.  We cannot runaway from this problem and must face the issue squarely. 

Consider what people are frightened about  and worried about. Crime clearly is one of the top concerns.  Our citizens do not feel safe because they simply do not believe that the police can protect them.  The public perceives that police departments are reluctant or incapable of resolving crimes and providing security.  Police Officers, some argue, spend their days rushing from call to call, being reactive rather than proactive.  How often do we hear citizens complain that the response from the police is simply “no transport” when the scene of the crime is a matter of yards away from the police station.

Citizens want to see officers on the streets.  They want to be able when they call upon their local law enforcement agency, whether it be in the city or towns or villages, to be assured of an immediate and effective response.

I am often impressed by the fact that when I visit foreign countries, and I hasten to add that these are countries with resources far beyond what we have, and there is a constant issue of limitations, I am impressed by the number of policemen I see on the streets within a radius of yards; constantly on the street among the citizens.  We need to comfort our citizens because the majority are peaceful law-abiding taxpayers.  The police officer is the key stakeholder in implementation of measures, designed to foster good governance and my simple point is that if we cannot control crime, then our ability to offer good governance will be under constant scrutiny.   Frankly, governments only request of any police force is that it should be efficient, effective, fair, just but accountable.  We are beginning to understand this here in St Lucia and it is for this reason that we have embarked on comprehensive reform.  But in that fight, we have to reclaim communities that have been abandoned.  We have abandoned many of our communities to drug-lords, where they prescribe their own rules, where they have instituted their own systems of justice, where they in fact have put into place economic systems to virtually ensure their survival. 

I represent a constituency with these abandoned communities and when I speak of returning to abandoned communities, I do not mean police officers patrolling the streets every few hours on a vehicle.  I mean reclaiming the communities and the law-abiding citizens in those communities – restoring friendships, restoring links and weaning our young people away from the jurisdiction of the drug-lords.  I guess I can say the same thing about every Caribbean community because we must not pretend that it exists in some communities but not others, and for years we have seen the warning signals in the Caribbean but somehow like everything else we never ever take heed.

Commissioners, I accept that your work is complicated by politicians.  I accept that many of you would prefer to have far more resources at your disposal and I also accept that even when some of us go the extra mile and give the resources we are concerned about the returns, justifying to the taxpayer that we have got value for money that is spent.  That is why, here in St Lucia, I too worry about the future because this government has embarked on the most far-reaching changes in the police force ever seen in this island, and in fact, the justice system as a whole.  We are constructing a $48m prison.  We now have a programme in place renovating every police station and building new police stations as well as other ancillary services.  I’m aware that our police force here require even further resources, and this is a matter that I shall come to when I address the issues of drugs because we need to speak very plainly to our donors particularly our European friends and our North American friends.  I believe that the opportunity will be taken by our police commissioner here to update you on our efforts. 

I want to touch now very quickly and crucially this issue of community policing.  Regardless of what the literature says or how the literature defines it, we want new community policing.  It was part of our tradition in this part of the world.  There was never any community on this island where the community did not know and respect key leading officials.  What has happened to that respect?  Why has it disappeared?  Why is it that our Sergeants can no longer walk the streets of our various communities and elicit respect and, yes, fear.  Mind you there is a place for fear too.  Why? What has happened over the years that criminals can no longer be afraid of police officers even in their civil capacities?  These are hard questions, and as I said to you I speak to you today as a politician concerned about these issues that are constantly raised as I walk throughout this island.  I speak to you also as someone who constantly has to be blamed or who is constantly blamed for a simple infraction. A gun is discharged in a nearby community, Leslie Land, and the Prime Minister is to be blamed.  A negligent driver mows down three children in his hungry bid to overtake another vehicle, the family suffers a monumental tragedy, the Prime Minister is to be blamed for that tragedy.  When a society can no longer be rational about these issues, you and I have to be concerned because it is sending signals of a very special type. 

Commissioner, I believe that it is very simple to mouth the virtues and advantage of community policing. We need it.  It can work, and in fact we have opened a new police station in one of our special communities and we are beginning to see the value of community policing.  But I do not see it as a new programme but as a new and reinvigorated philosophy of police operation and management.  One writer puts it this way.  He says that community policing is a new philosophy of policing, based on the concept that police officers and private citizens, working together in creative ways can help solve contemporary community problems related to crime, fear of crime, social and physical disorder, neighborhood decay.  The philosophy requires that police departments develop a new relationship with the law-abiding people in the community, allowing them a greater voice in setting local priorities and involving them in efforts to improve the overall quality of life in their neighborhood.  It shifts the focus of the police force from handling random calls to solving problems.  That is his view, but it is very clear that even if you accept that view, change is called for not only in police responsibilities but also in the whole operations and management of the police force.  There is no denying that we need to take steps to strengthen integrity and ethics of law enforcement forces and to prevent police misconduct.  Policing initiatives will have to be reformulated.  Local police training, education and recruitment must continue to be the priority of the government but at the same time we must ensure that the new philosophy is entrenched and deeply entrenched.  Really, what the new thrust requires is a shift in training from a focus on mastery and obedience to a focus on empowerment.

This philosophical shift has profound implications for everything that is taught in training - from the training school to field training to lifelong in-service training.  Really what I am trying to say is this, it is not enough to teach police officers to follow orders and master skills.  We have to go beyond that, but doing so is not going to be easy.  There is that tradition that is deeply entrenched - the inherent reluctance to change established attitudes and behaviours.  There is disagreement, even among senior officers with a new philosophical approach.  Then too, there is that problem with change itself, managing it, understanding it, appreciating it, and unless there can be conviction then we are not going to go very far.  I don’t have to tell you too that they are common problems.  Some people will perceive that the change will affect their status, the uniforms that they wear and what they are entitled to by wearing those uniforms.  So these are issues that we must face and we must address, but I know on these issue some of you are more seasoned than others, have more experience than others and I welcome the opportunity that this environment provides for discussing these issues.

I don’t have to tell you, just as politicians have the job to rebuild trust in the community that they govern, just as politicians have the responsibility to give people hope, to make them unafraid of the future, to believe that it is possible to transform, so too you have a task to build trust.  That task to build trust is even more difficult and complicated because you are constantly, and for all practical purposes, in a war zone.  No matter what you do you will be criticized, and in our small societies my advice to you is simply this - to be unafraid of criticism.   You simply have to do what is right and what the law commands. 

Chairman, I have no doubt that the vast majority of our police officers enforce our laws in a way that is both vigorous and fair but we have to understand that those who break the law must be brought to justice.  In every police force in the Caribbean there are police officers who connive with drug dealers, who connive with criminals and some how we have not developed the capacity to identify them, search them and weed them out.  We cannot allow the few corrupt or abusive police officers to undermine the progress that hundreds of dedicated police officers have worked so hard to achieve.  The time has come to establish sufficient and adequate mechanisms to deal with these problems, and as I have said and made it clear to our the Attorney General when this government enacts new legislation for the police force in St Lucia I expect that clear rules will exist for disciplining rogue officers in a manner that is fair and transparent. 

Chairman, we have been told that the rising crime in the region can be traced to drugs.  Unquestionably, there is truth to that.  But as a decision maker I am constantly consumed by the fact that as I visit our communities I see hundreds of our young people engaged in a life of drug consumption and drug trafficking.  We are losing our young people and somehow it doesn’t seem to me that we know what to do about it.  A drug community is a total society.  It is not just a sociological phenomenon.  It is an economic phenomenon, but more than this too it is a society that has carved out its own rules, including how it dispenses justice.  It is for that reason, Mr Chairman, that I urge that we have to devise strategies to reclaim the societies that we have lost.  No community in our small islands should feel that they have been abandoned by our security forces.  No drug community should feel safe, either from the wider society or from the police force and the time has come for these signals to be clearly sent. 

But Chairman I too, believe that the time has come to reassess the strategies on drugs.  Over the past few years, we have spent significant sums on interdiction.  I support those efforts and St Lucia will continue to co-operate with donors to strengthen interdiction capacity and capability.  But our donors need to understand that when a government decides to devote a significant percentage of its resources to fight drugs then it means that it is not giving the attention to other social crimes throughout the community.  When a police force like that of St Lucia with just about 700 officers has to devote 40 – 60% of its resources to fight drugs then it means that the community policing that we are talking about cannot be a reality.

I also want to suggest that the fight against drugs must be a total and comprehensive fight.  When governments of the region say to the donors that the politicians and the political directorate must be given the opportunity and the help to wean communities against drug dealers, those pleas fall on deaf ears.  And so what happens, we have to devote significant portions of our national budget to poverty eradication.  We have to devote significant portions of our national budget to create enterprise funds and we are left without help. 

Our donors need to understand that as much as we have interests in ensuring that the drugs do not reach your capitals, the best bulwark against drugs is to create an environment in our own countries where not only it is detested - it is hated but - also we extend a helping hand and prevent the constant human loss that is so readily apparent.  How many of us walk through these streets throughout the Caribbean and see young men totally lost, totally consumed begging?  The inhumanity of it must be brought to an end and I want to say to our donors that we need a comprehensive rethink of the existing policies; that not only must interdiction be a component but there must be a social and economic overhaul of the policy to give far greater support to governments as they seek to reclaim the communities of which I spoke of earlier.

Equally, I want to emphasize that not enough resources are being put into dealing with our addicts; not enough resources are being put into treatment.  Our mental health services do not know how to cope with drug addicts.  The police services are at a loss, the prison services are at a loss; and if it is we want to move in the direction where we say to our law enforcement personnel, our judiciary, that part of compulsory sentencing process is compulsory treatment in exchange for example for reduced prison terms, then very clearly we need to provide the facilities to do so. 

Chairman, I simply want to say to you the Commissioners and to the donors the time has come for a rethink, a reassessment, because no matter how hard the fight on interdiction, no matter what the successes are we must rid these islands of the social evil that now exists.  I do not want to feel helpless.  I do not want to see my young people walking and stalking the streets, sitting by the roadside refusing employment, feeling safety in their indulgences.  I want an end to it.  But I want to make very clear that we have to widen the boundaries of co-operation that exists.  What I say to you I suspect is what many of these Commissioners feel, what they too would like to say to our donors and I hope this meeting provides an opportunity to lay the basis for that assessment.

I thank you.


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