The email invitation was titled ‘Crime Symposium to Signal Hope and a New Direction’. By all I had earlier learned from National Security Minister Hermangild Francis, some sixty individuals had been invited to the event, to be held in the conference room of the Department of Infrastructure on Friday November 24. Suffice it to say, the symposium attracted a standing-room-only audience of “stakeholders” that included the former government minister turned talk-show host Richard Frederick. Seated at the head table were Mr. Francis in the role of facilitator, Mr. Guy Joseph (acting as prime minister in the absence of Mr. Allen Chastanet), Police Commissioner Severin Monchery, and the leader of the House opposition Philip J. Pierre.
Mr. Francis opened the affair with a promise: “The naysayers have indicated that this is just another talk shop, and nothing will come out of it. I beg to differ. I am going to give you the guarantee that whatever recommendations emanate from this symposium will be sent to me and I will discuss it with Cabinet. I can also guarantee you will see action being taken on the initiatives proposed here.”
He said that unlike previous similar gatherings, “this is not going to be documented and kept on any shelf. There have been previous symposia where material has been given but was treated as personal document. That should not be”.
Also on hand was Dr. Steven King as a representative of Rise Saint Lucia. He said, and not for the first time: “Crime and violence are really symptoms of a mal-developed society. This thing did not happen yesterday; this is a journey we’ve arrived at from bitter seeds we planted some many, many years ago.” We were reaping the resultant “bitter fruit”.
Some in the audience wondered whether Dr. King had referred to police initiative Operation Rescue St. Lucia (1998) or to Operation Restore Peace (2010) under Labour Party and United Workers Party administrations. “We are all guilty of where we are today either by inaction, or poor action or poor decision,” said Dr. King.
Guy Joseph was among the first to address the full house. He recalled his niece bringing him a parking ticket in the hope he might have it waived. The minister said he had advised his relative to pay up, that no one was above the law, least of all the lawmakers or their friends.
Joseph continued: “As a society we must understand what breeds the problems we are having as a country. If we are not willing to obey the basic traffic rules . . . We are supposed to be the more sensible ones in society; we are supposed to be the ones who are meant to lead by example. We are not abiding by the same rules that we establish but we expect the rest of society to abide by the rules that we have established.”
Joseph made the point, “Unless we begin to show a zero tolerance to the small issues [relating to crime], we cannot address the bigger ones now confronting us.”
He cited the widespread lack of respect towards police officers, even when in uniform. “If we want our law enforcement officers every day to put their lives on the line, we cannot stigmatize the entire force as if all of them were corrupt.”
It was no surprise – it was perhaps indicative of our politically polarized state – when a member of the opposition party, Gubion Ferdinand, sought to make hay out of the fact that the acting minister had left the symposium to keep another appointment. Said Ferdinand: “Although the acting prime minister was here, he left; and I’m not saying he didn’t have to leave but sometimes just the demonstration of your commitment of where you are and where you stay will tell how demonstrated you are to the cause.”
Janeka Simon of Raise Your Voice Saint Lucia seemed to attempt a rebuttal of what Minister Joseph had said: “I want to make the point that respect is earned, and authority needs to respect itself and conduct itself in a manner that is deserving of that respect.”
As for the minister’s reference to “a few bad apples”, Simon observed that a few bad apples can spoil a whole barrel of fruit. She added, pointedly: “Anti-corruption legislation, I think, has a part to play in this crime symposium [but] a zero-tolerance policy for crime should start at the top.”
As for the leader of the House opposition, Mr. Philip J. Pierre, concerning the symposium he admitted: “What has always been a difficulty is the persistence in approach and consistency and commitment over various administrations and to implement recommendations.” He continued, “Crime is a multi-faceted social challenge which must be carefully studied. Causes range from poverty, family conditions, depression and other social and mental disorders, a dysfunctional justice system and greater tolerance of violence in society.”
To begin fighting crime, his notion: “A critical starting point is that there is a clear signal that we are prepared to be serious in fighting crime. This gathering can be a powerful statement but must never be for the sake of optics.”
Also in attendance was former police commissioner Ausbert Regis. He said: “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The wheel is there; it is well oiled. All we have to do is to get it rolling. I have said this to the minister and now I will say it publicly: given the present construct of his ministry he will continue not to succeed. His ministry does not have a technical component. The works ministry, the ministry of education . . . all have technical components. Can the security ministry afford not to have one?”
Mr. Jean Louis of the Boys’ Training Centre offered the following: “I believe crime-fighting must be intelligence driven. You need to know what you’re dealing with. We need information, whether from the police, the BTC, human service, probation, schools. We need facilities to analyse data.” He ended by saying he still had “a lot of questions regarding what precisely I’m supposed to be fighting as a citizen”.
Michael Andrew of the Rastafari Iyanola Council said: “Those making presentations here think they know what they are talking about. We need to hear from people who are actually involved. We need to get a sense and a feel of what we’re dealing with. The police statistics should inform them of the root causes of the [crime] problem.”
There were complaints about the several Bordelais inmates kept for long periods on remand and others detained for petty crime, such as possessing marijuana. Also, reminders that “justice delayed is justice denied”, that “something must quickly be done about our justice system”.
More than a few at the symposium congratulated Senator Hermangild Francis on his invitation to the public to suggest ideas on how best to fight local crime. On the other hand, some were of the view that the best ideas might come “from those committing the crime”, which sounded a little bit like trapping water from the moon.
“We need to put more money into social transformation because I think there’s a direct correlation between crime and poverty, basic amenities that people who live in Central Castries do not have access to,” said Peter Reynolds of the Wilton’s Yard Association. His was not the only such proposition.
Richard Frederick underscored the value of sports in the effort to discourage crime: “Once there is common ground, and we all identify with friendly rivalry, it takes away at least 60% of your problem. When you encounter a man on a daily basis, you know, at a football match, a cricket match, your tendency later to go and kill that man during the night is almost gone.”
Jeshrun Andrew, President of the Saint Lucia National Youth Council: “Many of those young people you get involved in drugs, in their mindset they are actually entrepreneurs. If you develop an entrepreneurship environment that those young persons can seek to develop business ideas, legal ideas, then we can solve a lot of the issues as well.”
Police officer Zachary Hippolyte seemed to share the mindset: “By all means, we must start with financing, so where do we get the money?” he asked. “Well, there is not only our yearly budgetary allocations, but we could seek financing from regional-national donor agencies and also seek funding from the European Union that I know spends a lot on youth policy.”
Another attendant: “I want to say it to the Minister of Finance and to the Prime Minister, he must give you [the police] a budget. You cannot fight crime without a budget. He must have the trust in you, he must trust that you are going to do your job and he must get the money for you to do your job.”
Pastor Ben: “The idea of fighting crime must be holistic. We must take it up in all dimensions. People have not understood that there is a supernatural dimension to crime. If we are going to attack or deal with crime we must include God in the process.” It will be interesting in due course to hear from Chastanet on that!
Members of the Departments of Gender Relations, Human Services and Youth and Sports felt that the focus to fight crime should start in the homes and must be the centre of social transformation. According to a representative: “Though most of the crime is focussed on young people we need to do some more work on the parents. You can pick out a child and determine who that child’s parent is, simply because of their behaviour. Children emulate what they see from their parents.”
More from Dr. King: “I just want to implore us that let us realize that a siloed approach by law enforcement or even the justice system or whatever will not work. A whole series of interventions in a very holistic way would have to be put forward and I would urge us to try to put those systems in place.”