Perhaps you’ve heard: For its Person of the Year 2011 Time magazine elected to go the way of symbolism and chose, as representative of worldwide massive and effective street protests, “The Protester.” Of course this is not the first time the magazine has settled for a conceptual choice.
In 1950 it had honored “the American Fighting Man” and in 1969 the “Middle American.” Similarly, this newspaper had in 2010 chosen Tomas as the unitive force that in the name of survival had brought this divided nation together—if only until the storm had passed. We should also remind readers, as we have every year for the last two decades, that the title is not always an accolade. Our choices, like those of Time, have been based on who had the greatest impact during a particular year—for better or for worse. Small wonder that in 1938 and 1979 Adolph Hitler and Ayatollah Khomeini had decorated the magazine’s iconic covers.
On this occasion we are especially happy to report our choice was close to automatic, and based on the best possible reasons, nearly all of them related to dedicated public service sometimes beyond the call, often in situations obviously life-threatening.
Our 2011 Person of the Year began his own life in Choiseul with three older brothers, one of whom would carve for himself a reputation for standing up for our society’s especially poor and defenseless. But his demonstrated generosity had nothing to do with his youngest sibling’s decision soon after graduating from the Vieux Fort Secondary School to enlist in the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force.
To hear him tell it some 28 years later, he became a police officer for the simplest of reasons: he needed a job. His plan then was to leave after two or three years to pursue a course in white-collar agriculture, at the time a popular ambition. Who knew he would fall in love with his very first job—and remain irrevocably faithful?
After eight years as a police constable he was promoted to corporal—and soon after landed on the front pages of the island’s newspapers. A police prosecutor had fallen afoul of a tetchy magistrate during a particular court case, and was sentenced to six months behind bars for contempt. Our abruptly spotlighted corporal, who was also the Police Welfare Association’s president, soon let it be known his membership did not see eye to eye with the offended magistrate. Besides, they were of the view that her over-reaction would establish a dangerous precedent.
There was much consequent media discussion about a police plan to retaliate. Nonetheless the matter was satisfactorily resolved; no one was required to serve time, after all—but there was the related protest march that . . . well it wasn’t really an organized march, although it certainly looked that way to news reporters and other interested parties who had predicted the worst for “the officer who led the demonstration,” and who recently recalled, wink-wink, the particular precedential event: He had decided to deliver personally a protest letter from the Police Welfare Association to the office of the magistrate in question and was as surprised as everyone else to see so many uniformed fellow officers taking the same route, at the very same time, to wherever they were going! Yeah, right.
And then there was that other unforgettable time when, as the day’s police prosecutor, he had described a minister of government as “the perfect gentleman,” despite that he was especially famous for kicking his English wife down a flight of stairs (he claimed in court he had “merely pushed her with my foot”) while admittedly brandishing a gun, in the presence of their bawling two young sons.
“That one got me even more press,” says our hero today, while hilariously recalling the episode. “Most people are unaware that the whole thing started with the husband and gender affairs minister taking his estranged wife to court for allegedly battering him and his cherished Cressida car. By the way, whatever may later have transpired during their divorce proceedings, we won our case against her.”
He had since then learned a lot about politicians, and not only with reference to their marital quarrels. But all he will say about that is: “They have their job to do and we have ours. In all circumstances the public has a right to expect us to deliver.”
Alas, often the best efforts of the police had failed to measure up to public expectations—especially during the present administration’s first two terms, when the annual murder rate had jumped from less than twenty to forty-seven and our soon to be identified hero was the assistant commissioner of police, with special responsibility for crime. The political solution to the nation’s burgeoning law and order problem had been to import help from the United Kingdom, a decision that gave added strength to the negative public perception of the force and all but destroyed police morale.
“It was a tough period for us,” admitted our man of the moment during a recent interview. “For much of that time the then commissioner was on sick leave and I was left to handle things with John Broughton and his seven or eight colleagues from the UK.”
Police relations hardly improved after the Kenny Anthony government was voted out of office in favor of Sir John, replaced at his death less than a year later by Stephenson King. Before long personal squabbles between the new minister with responsibility for the police and leading members of the force were being aired on radio and on TV, with wild threats flying this way and that, and the minister finally deciding to send particular officers on accrued leave when it seemed their services were most needed. As if already the situation were not bad enough, John Broughton—who with his team had been brought to Saint Lucia by the Anthony government for administrative purposes altogether removed from regular police work—was declared, under a shower of hyperbolic praise from his minister, head of the Saint Lucia police force. In one fell swoop, it seemed, this ostensibly proud independent nation had, wittingly or otherwise, been returned to colonialism. At any rate, in the teary eyes of many, not a few in police uniform!
By inside account, the new police chief from the former Mother Country had little choice but to depend on his more grounded, if officially overlooked, homegrown assistant commissioner. And for a time he was successful—or so it seemed. Police insiders certainly knew who was more deserving of the praise heaped on Broughton. Alas, with crime once again on the rise the Englishman’s popularity nosedived. The writing was soon on the wall. At least one rebellious officer took him to court, albeit unsuccessfully. And then the government announced it had had enough of Broughton. Moreover, that the absentee native police commissioner would at the end of his sick leave be transferred to a previously unheard of department attached to the prime minister’s office. Meanwhile, the force would for six months operate at the command of an acting commissioner.
It’ll come as no surprise that Vernon Francois remembers well the circumstances of his sudden elevation. Judging by the outpour of congratulations via the media, it seemed the whole nation had welcomed the news—until opposition politicians and their lawyers entered the picture. Then again, as Francois would in due course acknowledge, that’s what the courts are for: to properly settle disputes.
On the occasion of our most recent interview, he said assuming control of the force was never a serious concern, if only because it was hardly a novel proposition. Already he had substituted for more than one police commissioner, whether or not obviously.
As for the fact that in his latest situation the buck
would stop at his desk, he said: “I have never worried about being accountable. Whether as a corporal or as an assistant police commissioner, I was always ready to give full account for what I did and what was expected of me.”
He admits, however, that until he had been officially charged with running the force his had never the final word when it came to making decisions. “When Mr Ausbert Regis was commissioner,” he explained, “I would be summoned to his office from time to time when he thought there was need for a discussion, and things would move on from there. My style is different: we have policy meetings every Thursday, so my management team is always involved in the final decisions. We also have operational meetings on Mondays, so the men are always well informed about what’s going on. But don’t misunderstand me. Mr Regis tried to do a good job. Like the rest of us, however, he had his weaknesses. But no one can fairly say he didn’t do his best in his circumstances.”
Was there ever a time when he felt overwhelmed? He smiles, ponders for a second or two before answering: “I was always at the forefront of things, even when Regis was commissioner. He spent a lot of time out of office, due to his medical issues. I was left to face the media’s questions and most of the members came to see me as the face of the police. That is why I’ve said that taking over the leadership was never a difficult transition for me.”
I suggested the face he referred to had undergone a stunning makeover in the last several months. For one, his answers to media queries were now more than ever diplomatic.
“My role is different now,” he said. “I find myself more in a policy set-up today than in an operational one. Since I now have the final word, I may have become more careful about what I say publicly.”
Again, he paused, looked around my office before continuing: “Unlike the case with your desk, which is loaded down, mine suggests someone who is ready to go home at a moment’s notice. It appears freshly cleared. I guess I learned that from the Regis experience. One day, you’re the man in charge, the next day you’re the man on your way out the door. In our situation, as has been seen, anything can happen almost overnight. As I’ve said more than once, the job of police commissioner was never created for one particular individual. I prefer to think of myself as a manager, a leader for the time being. I do my very best each day to be effective.”
The force he manages comprises 1300 individuals, including regular officers, special constables and about 100 women. “Everyone goes through the same exercises,” he assured me, “even though ours is still a male-dominated force. I don’t see my officers as male or female.”
He pauses yet again, as if pondering how best to deliver what’s on his mind. “What we really need at this time is a different attitude to crime fighting. We need to look more in the direction of scientific policing. The facility for ballistics matching is available to us and we now have locally a forensic lab where we do DNA matching. It extends to all sorts of DNA. In earlier times we depended for our forensic services on the UK and on the FBI. Sadly, we still don’t have a fingerprint bank and that’s a major problem. Provision has been made for it in the Estimates & Expenditure for some time. We came closest to actually getting one in 2006 but things didn’t quite work out. For a while it seemed we’d get one in 2011
but . . .”
Another pause, a smile, and then he says: “I feel confident we’ll have that fingerprint bank by the end of this financial year.”
I could not resist my next question: “The present government was in office for two terms, at a time when money was not nearly as scarce as it is today, but you did not get your fingerprint bank. What’s different now?”
He smiled before delivering his carefully crafted answer: “The Americans are showing interest and that’s very encouraging.” Also encouraging was that “the long talked about surveillance cameras are here and in the process of being set up.”
Several months before the November 2011 general elections, the police reportedly interrupted in Vieux Fort a burglary in progress. Finally four locally notorious individuals were pronounced deceased. Much of the praise earlier heaped on the police for its fine work under Vernon Francois abruptly turned to mud. If mainly by individuals hoping to cash in politically, the Vieux Fort deaths were described as extra-judiciary executions. I wondered about the impact on police morale.
Francois shrugged: “It’s one of life’s realities. As the saying goes, you’re damned if you do and all that . . . As a police officer you need only to know you did the job expected of you and that you did it by the book. There is no place on this earth that can truly be considered crime free. The best we can hope to do is to keep lawbreaking at a tolerable level. Besides, when people call the radio and talk their talk, regardless of how uninformed or obviously biased, you have to recognize they are exercising their right to free speech, a right that the police are sworn to protect.”
As for his New Year resolutions, “Well,” he said, “I’m afraid the first is professional. I am happy to report we have come a long way since we experienced two and three killings a month, sometimes more. But while things are a lot better today as I speak, while people openly say they
feel much safer than they have in a long time, I recognize we still have a way to go. Ours will always be a work in progress. One of my wishes for 2012 is that the people become even more aware of the need for the citizenry and the police to work together as a crime-fighting unit.”
He was also looking forward to better working conditions: “There needs to be greater stability at the higher levels of the force; we have too many acting appointments. We need to go more in the direction of community-oriented policing and we must provide our officers with training relevant to our current circumstances. We cannot have a past-tense police force in a world so obviously technology oriented.”
He returned to the rumors about extra-judiciary police activity, some of them expressed by individuals closely connected with the recently-elected government. “The public statements had a demoralizing effect on the men,” he revealed, “but at the end of the day, while I’ve always encouraged them to be firm, I’ve also stressed that what we do must always be within the boundaries of the law we swore to uphold in all circumstances. There is an obvious need to establish effective investigative mechanisms by which to quickly ensure we get to the bottom of suspicious incidents involving the police.”
He was especially proud of Operation Restore Confidence, even though he regretted the related loss of life. On the other hand, and contrary to some expressed views, “the initiative had no negative impact on the police image. Residents of the so-called trouble spots were both grateful and helpful. The complaints clearly were not from the more obviously law-abiding. We were always well received in the raided communities and our efforts appreciated. Operation Restore Confidence evinced the value of citizen and police working in the common interest.”
He also praised the efforts of government and police officials who, in a combined effort to avert bloodshed, had controversially attended a meeting with warring gang members, perchance to establish a truce.
“Some people were of the view that we should have stayed away,” he said, “They claimed our presence encouraged among gang members a feeling of self importance. But what if we had not acted on information received, who would have prevented what we had reason to believe was inevitable? You need to give people, whoever they are, opportunities to contribute. Pity there has been no follow-up to our meeting. We started something
that I believe is worth looking at for its possibilities.”
He expressed concern about the number of inquests still to be held: “We are heading in the right direction. We now have some dedicated coroners. What we need to change urgently is the situation of the police investigating complaints against themselves. This creates a perception problem.”
Did the Englishman John Broughton contribute anything to the local policeman’s working environment? His answer came quickly: “I prefer to say the British officers, working together with the local hierarchy, made a difference. Had the same amount of money been invested in local personnel as has been invested in non-nationals over the years, who knows how much better off the force would be today? I don’t know why more resources are always thrown at imported personnel. The Broughton contingent was afforded better housing, better pay, greater respect, better amenities all around than we can even dream about.”
In the United States, Britain and elsewhere, police departments have been drastically cut, thanks to the worldwide recession. More and more the proffered expert advice is that governments should try to curb public spending. Is Francois therefore worried about the immediate future?
“I cannot answer for the other public service jobs,” he said, “but, typically, when you have economic problems there is a consequent rise in criminal activity. This is hardly the best time to reduce the size of a police force. I certainly hope the economic constraints will not negatively impact recruitment. In any case, our problems are not necessarily related to numbers. I rather think what we need is better training for those we have now.”
That he had somehow managed to keep a lid on things when it seemed the nation was in serious danger of being taken over by criminal elements, and that he had accomplished a mission seemingly impossible in particularly discouraging circumstances, says much about the acting commissioner’s dedication to duty and his ability to focus, not to mention his faith in the men under his command. If Saint Lucia is still nowhere near crime free, at least the criminality that not so long ago was rampant has to a large extent been curbed, thanks to Francois’ determination always “to do the best with what we have.”
It’s anyone’s guess what the new government has in store for the police. It has been hinted that “a package deal” may be offered Ausbert Regis, now that his “wrongful-dismissal” case against the previous administration has been settled in his favor.
It is also rumored that the court-reinstated commissioner has no plans to return to work any day soon. If indeed there is truth in the reports, chances are the authorities will acknowledge the tangible results of Francois’ management of the force, not to say his impact on public morale over the last year, and confirm as quickly as possible his position as police commissioner.
In the meantime, we have no hesitation in declaring Vernon Francois STAR Person of the Year!