The country woke up on Monday morning in very much the same gloomy mood that the sun went down on us Friday evening. And it was not just for lack of better days, but the fact that the body that had sworn to serve and protect us was embroiled in some major controversy involving human rights violations and the US State Department. The reportedly strained relationship between the Royal Saint Lucian Police Force and the United States government that had been funding a number of programs here for the local police, was first brought to light by Rick Wayne. But those charges were quickly denied by the top cop himself Vernon Francois. He went so far as to suggest Wayne apologize.
The STAR publisher ignored the request and instead demanded that the prime minister tell the nation all he and the justice minister know about the matter. Two weeks ago, following the reported revocation of a senior police officer’s U.S. visa, Wayne repeated his request for clarification. It was widely bruited about that less than cordial relationship between the local police force and the United States was linked to the Vieux Fort killings in 2011, during “Operation Restore Order.” Local human rights advocates had labeled a bloodbath the Sandy Beach fatal shooting of four individuals by the police.
And then last week came news that sent shockwaves through the island’s poverty stricken stomachs: the island’s popular police chief had not been permitted to board a flight at Hewanorra en-route to Philadelphia where he was scheduled to attend a police conference. Again the STAR publisher appealed to the prime minister and the home affairs minister to address the related speculations.
Finally, the prime minister’s press secretary Jadia JnPierre issued a statement, to the effect that the prime minister upon his return to the island this week would address the matter of the police. Last week Francois sought to clear the air. He told reporters his visa had not been revoked, even though he admitted he was prevented from boarding his flight to Philadelphia. He cited “ticketing issues.”
None of this quelled the nation’s hunger for information. Not even a number of success stories in the area of major drug busts last week could remove the dark cloud over the police force.
Then on Monday morning the nation woke up to the creole news that Commissioner Vernon Francois had been sent packing. The story later that morning appeared on the website Caribbean News, now stating Francois had been sent on 400 days accumulated leave and that former Deputy Police Commissioner Hermangild Francis would be brought back to head the police on a three-year contract.
The government was quick to respond. By midday on Monday, the prime minister’s press secretary to the prime minister had released a statement of denial: “The Government has not requested the Commissioner of Police to go on leave. On that count, the story is false . . . there is no intention to replace the Commissioner of Police.”
Later that day Francois told reporters the denied rumours might have the effect of “demoralizing the police and interfere with the hard work he had been doing, even possibly empowering criminals who would capitalize on perceived weaknesses in the force.” He said he considered his ascension to the top ranks of the force as “transient.”
“I was given a job to do,” he went on. “I have accepted all the challenges and if I am asked to move on, then so be it. In the meantime I will continue to do my job to the best of my ability and seek ways to make Saint Lucia a safer and better place.” The police press officer later confirmed Francois would keep his town hall appointment on Tuesday (yesterday) with the people of Gros Islet.
Before that he told the STAR he expected questions of the latest controversy would be asked at the scheduled meeting. He said he hoped the focus would be Gros Islet. “But I guess if people have concerns about the police department in general I will be happy to address them.”
As for the prime minister’s promised statement: “I am comfortable that they understand the present situation of the police department. It is in their hands now to make the necessary statements. For now I don’t think there is need for me to change anything I have said previously. I always told my officers their actions (with regards to the 2011 shootings by police during operation restore order) were subject to review. But the review process we have in Saint Lucia is an inquest and during the course of this people are free if they have evidence to come forward and give it.”
More on our interview with Vernon Francois as well as a report on the Gros Islet town
hall meeting in the Weekend STAR!