You have to hand it to police commissioner Vernon Francois. He has certainly kept his head amid widespread rumors concerning himself and his officers. He has faced the media with his head high, and never shied away from the cameras or the microphones.
Last week the government broke its silence when the press secretary Jadia Jn Pierre issued a promise that the prime minister would early this week address the controversy that included an item on the internet that said Francois would be sent on 400 days leave while a former officer acted as commissioner.
On Tuesday morning a typically calm Vernon Francois reacted this way: “I am comfortable that they understand the position of the police department in these matters. It is for them now to make the necessary statements. I don’t think there is need for me to change anything I’ve said.”
During an interview with the STAR, the commissioner recalled Operation Restore Order and the unprecedented crime wave that inspired it. He also talked about what human rights activists have always described as “extra-judicial executiions,” including an incident in Vieux Fort when five men were fatally shot by the police.
There has been wide speculation that such incidents may have a lot to do with the strained US/Saint Lucia relations. Said Francois: “I have always insisted that police officers be accountable for their actions. I always told by men even before and after the operations that their actions would be subject to review. But the review process we have in Saint Lucia is an inquest, during which people are free come forward with their information.”
We also asked whether another the police shooting of a mentally ill Babonneau man last Friday would hinder his community policing and the scheduled town hall meeting in Gros Islet. “I don’t think it will hinder our objectives as we have set out for community policing and these meetings but it may set us back a bit,” he said. “It won’t derail us. What I want us do is look at the situation objectively. What we need to do is ensure there is a transparent and quick investigation of police incidents, whether followed by an inquest or trial.” He said he and the officer responsible for the area had spoken to the family of the Babonneau man recently shot. “We need to show that we are being fair to all sides in these matters and allow the investigations to take place,” he added.
Tuesday evening’s town hall meeting with the police commissioner was held at the Gros Islet Secondary School. Also attending was district representative Emma Hippolyte. Among the issues discussed was the police response time to distress calls, marine safety, as well as a series of rapes that had plagued the northernmost constituency of Saint Lucia in recent times. Residents and their district representative took the opportunity to address the problem of children and alcohol during the Friday night Gros Islet street party.
During our interview Francois had cited this as “a major problem.” He said: “The issue of children selling and purchasing alcoholic beverages during the street party and elsewhere is of major concern. While the activity has been a good tourist attraction from which we derive economic benefit, we need to ensure that it is conducted properly.” Tuesday’s meeting ended with a performance by the police cheerleading squad.
Since then the PM’s press secretary has let it be known the prime minister will address the police issue on Tuesday next week. According to an earlier release from her office: “The government of Saint Lucia is aware of the concerns and anxieties expressed by the public over the decision by the United States to disallow officers of the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force from participating in several training programmes arranged or financed by the United States . . .” The release stated that the public reaction is “understandable, especially as delicate matters of security are involved.”
Bearing in mind the scheduled visit by Taiwan’s president Ma, what was the PM’s press secretary thinking when she first promised the prime minister would this week address the on-going police controversy?