By David Myers
From the recent media coverage of policing matters island wide, it appears that there is a lack of trust between the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force (RSLPF) and some members of the public. The perception that some Saint Lucians hold of the RSLPF is one of an unregulated militia that arbitrarily enforces laws, rather than an organization designed to safeguard the welfare of the citizenry. These sentiments seem to stem from incidents of alleged police brutality, which in some instances were lethal. These incidents have raised the ire of members of the public, some of whom are scathing in their critique of current policing practices. This adds more stress to an already strained relationship between the RSLPF and the citizens of Saint Lucia, which puts both Saint Lucians and members of the RSLPF at a high-risk of victimization. In order to address the current crime rate, members of the public and the RSLPF must be willing to work together. This article addresses the RSLPF’s use of force tactics and explains why these incidents contribute to crime rather than curtail it. In conclusion, this article will offer strategies with the objective of building a working relationship between the RSLPF and members of the public without blurring the roles each group has to play when it comes to public safety and maintaining order.
The title of this article is part of Sir Robert Peel’s seventh of his nine principles of policing. Peel was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on two separate occasions (1834-1835 and 1841-1846) and is recognized as the founder of modern policing. Despite these ideas being nearly two centuries old, they are interestingly applicable in the 21st century. Peel argued that the basic mission of the police is to prevent crime and disorder, but that it is also impossible for the police to keep every community member in order. Thus, for Peel, it was vital that the police enlist members of the public as agents in promoting safety and crime prevention through information sharing. Peel envisioned a strong connection between the police and members of the community to the extent they act as a single entity that maintains order.
Many policing organizations including the RSLPF interpret Peel’s seventh principle as the foundation upon which any formal policing organization is established. Securing the trust and cooperation of the public creates a comfort zone for the citizenry where they can interact with individuals dedicated to keeping them safe. Moreover, this allows the police to be proactive in their duties by defusing situations, especially those that have the propensity to escalate into violence. However, trust and cooperation between the public and police erodes through the constant use of force, something that Peel highlights in his fourth principle, “[t]he degree of public cooperation with the police diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.” In other words, the police will gain less cooperation the more they rely on force while interacting with the citizenry they swore to protect. This establishes an inverse relationship where members of the public are hesitant to interact with the police regardless of the situation due to the fear of inviting a physical confrontation.
If it is common knowledge that police officers are aggressive in nature, community scholars like Elijah Anderson argues that members are motivated to avoid the police, which severely circumscribes their public life. Furthermore, social scientist and policing scholar Michael Banton argued that modern policing institutions possess naked power. This power is physically present in the form of uniforms, guns, handcuffs, tasers and retractable sticks. More importantly, this power is embodied in the police officer’s discretion to use force, which is state sanctioned and something ordinary citizens do not have. If this naked power in the form of physical coercion when interacting with the citizenry outweighs the moral responsibility of exhausting all non-forceful means (mediation, advice and verbal warnings) prior to using force, respect for the police and the laws they enforce will be withdrawn by the public. We are currently witnessing this happening in Saint Lucia as most now look to God to address crime and deviancy.
Observers from the U.S. State Department on Human Rights have raised issues with the RSLPF’s use of force tactics, most notably in respect of 12 police killings that occurred in 2011. The human rights observers argue that these killings were potentially unlawful. Moreover, in their 2011 report, they suggest unlawful killings by the RSLPF date back as far as 2006. Reviews of their reports from 2006 to 2012 indicate that the RSLPF killed 32 people during this period. Moreover, in their 2012 report, the human rights observers argued that there was limited progress into the investigations launched for these 12 killings. The human right observers also documented a litany of complaints filed with the Complaints Commission during this period, against police officers for excessive use of force, mostly beatings. While the human rights observers acknowledged that the government had taken steps to prosecute those who committed abuses,they argued, “[t]he procedure for investigating police officers was lengthy, cumbersome and often inconclusive. When the rare cases reached trial years later, juries often acquitted, leaving an appearance of de facto impunity” (2012 report). These findings paint an unflattering picture of the RSLPF, more importantly, such violent encounters with the public have serious ramifications particularly for crime detection. If Saint Lucians are hesitant to interact with members of the RSLPF, how does the RSLPF expect to obtain the information necessary to conduct their duties effectively?
A quick look at the crime statistics recorded by the RSLPF – which are available to the Saint Lucian public on their website (http://www.rslpf.com/gen&stats.html) – reveals the importance of considering changes in current policing tactics and strategies. These statistics, among other things, document the total numbers of reported crimes, accepted crimes, detected crimes and the rate at which crimes are solved. Crime statistics are currently available only from 2000 to 2007 on the RSLPF’s website. According to these statistics, between 2000 and 2007, an average of 12,960 crimes was reported to the police island wide. Furthermore, an average of 12,632 crimes was accepted and of that number, an average of 3,969 crimes was detected. According to members of the RSLPF at a press conference on 19th March 2013, a crime is detected when the matter is reported to the police and investigations have been complete. The RSLPF cleared up an average of 31.4% of the 3,969 detected crimes, which means an average of 1,246 crimes were resolved during this period. This raises two interesting questions, the first being, what happened to the remaining average of 8,663 accepted crimes between 2000 and 2007? Secondly, why was there an average of 2,722 (68.6%) detected crimes unresolved between 2000 and 2007? These figures are not reflective of an effective and efficient police force. While many may point to the lack of resources at the disposal of the RSLPF, eyewitness accounts play a significant role in detecting and solving crimes. If the public is unwilling to cooperate with police, this puts a lot of people at risk.
(See next weekend’s STAR for Part Two of this feature)