Back in 2011 he seemed to be everybody’s darling. The sun seldom set on a day when he was not favorably compared to his predecessors. Many citizens publicly thanked him on the radio and on TV for making our streets safe again. His picture appeared regularly in the newspapers, always under flattering headlines. But there were others who suggested the acting police commissioner was not quite as pristine as he appeared, that he harbored dark secrets, that how his men had dealt with violent crime in the city in 2010-11 was dictated by desperate politicians determined to stay in office by whatever means necessary. Then, quite suddenly, Vernon Francois disappeared.
In early February 2010 the day’s prime minister, Stephenson King, had reminded parliament that there had been since 1998 a steady increase each year in the number of homicides. He said that by 2000 the figure had reached an all-time high of 23, including the Cathedral murders, “among the worst acts of violence against our people.”
King noted that by the time his party took office in 2006 Saint Lucia had recorded 43 homicides. The following year the figure had dropped to 25 but by 2010 had jumped again to 48.
“In other words,” the prime minister said, “for more than a decade our country has been under siege. We must now take decisive and coherent measures to fight the drug activity, the gang violence, the murders, the destruction of our families, and return our country to serenity. Let us stop the blame game and commit ourselves to working together against the scourge of crime that confronts us.”
Additionally: “Our response cannot simply be to say, ‘let us hang them; let us open fire in the ghettos or let us get rid of the youth who are creating these problems.’ No, that cannot be our response!”
The prime minister revealed that his government had developed “a comprehensive strategy that will entail the engagement and coordination of the resources of government, families, civil society, the private sector, all political parties, along with the churches. We are in this together and must work together to find a solution. It serves no good purpose to rehash any self-serving statements that may have been made in the heat of political campaigns, whether by my party or by the opposition. The inescapable truth is that despite our respective efforts, crime continues to be our number-one problem and will continue to be for as long as we continue to fight each other, rather than combining our efforts against crime . . . We cannot and must not be divided on the issue of crime.”
Three months later, at a press conference convened to consider “the current crime situation in Saint Lucia,” the leader of the then opposition Kenny Anthony announced that his party had “listened to the cries of Saint Lucians from all walks of life for an end to the crime and lawlessness that has gripped our country over the last few weeks and months . . . We have heard from shop owners and residents of affected communities who are now fearful of leaving their homes or even answering knocks at their doors. We have heard from young people who are now afraid to venture outdoors to play, to recreate or to go to school.”
Moreover: “We have all waited in vain over the last three and a half years for a coordinated approach and a defined plan by the King administration to fight crime. But some members of the very government who should be devising plans to deal with the crime situation have not set proper example.”
The opposition leader sympathized “with those who have lost loved ones in the latest crime wave and we assure them and all citizens of our commitment to provide lasting solutions to the problem.” He empathized with the police “whose crime detection and investigative capabilities have been compromised by the government’s failure to provide necessary resources . . .” He pointedly warned the government “not to disregard the links between the core of the problem and persons in high places.”
He said the government headed by Stephenson King had “failed to fully cooperate with foreign governments in addressing cross-border crime, particularly the illegal drug trade. There can be no doubt that this has damaged Saint Lucia’s reputation in the eyes of foreign governments and we feel obliged to warn the government that the present situation can lead Saint Lucia down the slippery slope that can result in the current chaotic situation that exists in Jamaica.”
Obviously, the opposition leader had forgotten that his own “systematic and strategic approach to crime” when he was the nation’s prime minister had had no salutary impact on crime, violent crime in particular.
In May 2010, a desperate Prime Minister King acknowledged during a televised address “the increasing level of criminality” in Saint Lucia. However, he strongly disagreed with the notion that “unavailable resources” were solely to blame. He also expressed his disappointment with “some among us who refuse to recognize that crime affects us all, regardless of political color . . . who continue to see in every murder recorded, every rape and burglary, every purse snatching, another opportunity to pull down another brick from the structure of government.”
“Their political ambitions are to them far more important than the safety of our citizens,” said King. “And so, by their public comments, by their advertised refusal to cooperate with the day’s government in our efforts against crime, they stoke the fires of rage that the authorities tell us is at the root of so much of the violence that now surrounds us and threatens our very existence.”
The prime minister revealed that “since the escalation in criminal or gang warfare in recent weeks,” his government had engaged “the top management of the police force with a view to refining its strategy and plan of action.”
At an emergency Cabinet meeting convened on 26 May 2010, said the prime minister, a decision was taken to immediately implement the creation of a task force, chaired by the prime minister and comprising other members of his Cabinet.
“The ministerial task force shall engage all social and economic partners including political organizations as part of the national strategy to address the crime issue.” Cabinet had also approved for immediate implementation a 24-hour surveillance and patrol of troubled areas. The police would be “provided the appropriate assets to facilitate this and associated preventive activities.”
Additionally the government had made “formal approaches to two of our international friends who have expertise and tremendous experience in inner-city violence, urban warfare and tactics, to provide training, technical assistance and equipment for our police. The police patrol strategy, which I spoke to earlier, will entail 24-hour surveillance and patrol in the most vulnerable areas. This is a campaign that will be institutionalized and sustained to confront, disarm, and arrest the criminals and bring them to justice.”
On the evening of 20 August 2013, his party having returned to office following the 2011 general elections, the new prime minister Kenny Anthony delivered on TV a much-anticipated statement on “issues of concern and in particular the reasons for the actions of the United States to disallow the officers of the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force from participating in training programs arranged or financed by the United States.”
“As I have explained,” the prime minister said, “this matter is exceedingly delicate and complex. It involves several parties: the officers of the RSLPF, the US government, the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and, most importantly, the citizens of our country.”
He said “the current events” had their origin in the “twelve individuals who were shot and killed by police officers between 2010 and 2011, during the tenure of the government of the United Workers Party. Those killings occurred after the former government launched what was then described in the media and elsewhere as Operation Restore Confidence.”
He said the operations commenced with “the dramatic speech to the nation by the former prime minister Stephenson King on 30 May 2010. The former prime minister warned criminals that “there will be no refuge, no stone will be left unturned and there will be no hiding place for anyone.” (What King actually said in the cited speech was: “Let’s stop the violence now. We will not abdicate our responsibility to protect the citizens of this country and to maintain law and order. This government will not stand aside and allow criminals to trample the citizens of this country. There will be no refuge, no stone will be left unturned, and there will be no hiding place for anyone. By your actions you have declared war on the society and as such we will employ all practical steps to pursue and arrest you and restore normalcy to our fair Helen.”)
Anthony went on: “In a further address to the nation on 13 February 2011, the former prime minister issued another warning to the criminals: ‘They will be hunted down, they will be found, they will be prosecuted, they will be judged and will be made to pay the consequences for the crimes committed against our peace-loving and law-abiding people.’”
Anthony recalled “a hit list of targeted persons deemed to be criminals” and that while in opposition he had “seen such a list.” He said: “Some twelve persons met their deaths” in the aftermath of the launch of Operation Restore Confidence and “these killings described
by some as extra-judicial killings attracted the attention of the United States, in particular, that country’s State Department.”
In its Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Saint Lucia for 2011, the prime minister revealed, the State Department had noted “there were twelve potentially unlawful fatal police shootings during the year, some reportedly committed by officers associated with an ad-hoc task force within the police department. It is this issue which has preoccupied the United States and which has led to the actions taken against the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force.”
The prime minister added: “Since the United States has decided to impose sanctions on members of the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force, then it is reasonably clear that it does not have confidence in the outcome of our inquests to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. Clearly, too, the presumption seems to be that the killings were unlawful.”
At the time of the prime minister’s speech six inquests had been completed. Coroners had returned verdicts of “death by lawful act.”
The prime minister said his government, “from its first few months in office,” had always understood “the seriousness of this matter and its implications for the police force—and indeed the former UWP political directorate.”
While acknowledging the importance of bringing all speculation to an end, the prime minister said it was in the interest of all concerned that the full facts relating to the alleged extra-judicial killings be disclosed, “not only to satisfy the United States but, importantly, to clear those officers whose reputations are at risk.”
He disclosed that he had invited the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security to investigate the so-called extra-judicial killings. “We now reap the harvest of rash decisions, particularly by policy makers anxious to gain quick solutions.”
On the evening of 8 March 2015 the prime minister announced what was already common knowledge: IMPACS had submitted its report to the government. “I cannot and will not discuss or review the evidential basis of the conclusions of the investigators,” said the prime minister. “The matter of pursuing criminal charges is the preserve of the Director of Public Prosecutions and it is she who will pronounce on the same once her actions are consistent with our Constitution.”
Nevertheless, he proceeded to report the findings of the investigators “are extremely damning. These findings relate not only to those officers who were involved in the operations but additionally members of the high command of the police force who may have been involved in covering up these matters.”
He said the IMPACS report confirmed “the blacklist or death lists referenced by the media, human rights organizations, victims’ families and citizens alike did exist.” The greater truth was that the prime minister alone had “seen such a list.”
Alarmingly, the investigators had reported “all the shootings reviewed were fake encounters staged by the police to legitimize their actions.” Further, that the weapons supposedly found on the scene of the alleged judicial killings were from sources other than the victims . . . “they were planted at the scene of the shootings. The investigators also advised that a number of shootings were done by police officers and are listed on the murder statistic as being done by unknown assailants.”
Perhaps even more shocking was the disclosure that “the report suggests the crime problem in Saint Lucia is facilitated by corrupt politicians and government officials, business persons and police officers . . . Willful blindness existed in respect of the commissioner of police and particular members of his leadership and management team.”
While he had been careful not to discuss or review the conclusions, obviously he held himself free not only to state them but also the investigators’ recommendation that “all police officers involved in the unlawful killings of citizens in respect of the files reviewed must be prosecuted.”
As I write, there is widespread speculation on the future of police commissioner Vernon Francois. He was sent on leave shortly before the prime minister made public sections of the IMPACS report. Other officers, once TV fixtures, are these days seldom seen in uniform.
Since the airing of the report, there have been several fatal shootings without resolution. This week, a female relative of two police officers was gruesomely killed in her Vieux Fort home. Two weeks earlier, the half naked body of another woman was discovered near her half-submerged car on sea rocks in Soufriere. A short time earlier Cheryl Clarke was gunned down near a Castries bar.
As I write the nation continues to receive negative overseas publicity, some of it generated by the widely publicized murder of Oliver Gobat. This week—amidst widespread speculation about the grossly understaffed DPP’s office and the IMPACS report—a story appeared online centered on the plight of the still popular vacationing police commissioner. Reportedly the US and UK authorities are demanding the government sack Francois. Alas not a word, not a word, not a word from the prime minister or his justice minister Victor La Corbiniere, who announced months ago that the nation’s crime lab had to be closed while personnel from Barbados conduct an unexplained “audit.” No one knows when the lab will resume normal operations.
Meanwhile, the US continues to deny funding and other assistance to the handicapped, demoralized and broke police force. As for the procrastinators, the guarded word is that they may soon discover they are unwelcome in the US!