Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has described as “not wise” the decision of Commissioner of Police, Michael Charles, to attend rallies of the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) dressed in red — the party’s colour.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security, however, said this is not “a hanging offence” for which the police chief should resign.
Charles has attended meetings of the ULP in a red outfit made of material with white stars, similar to that used to make headwear worn on the platform by some ULP candidate.
The star is the symbol of the ULP.
He was photographed at least once flashing the “four inna row” hand symbol of the ULP’s campaign for a fourth consecutive term in office.
The Prime Minister’s comments on radio on the weekend come amidst a call by opposition lawmaker, MP For Central Kingstown, St. Clair Leacock of the main New Democratic Party, and head of the Public Service Union (PSU), Elroy Boucher, for Charles to step down as a result of his choice of attire.
Charles told I-Witness News last week that Leacock’s call was “outrageous”, but said he had not heard Boucher’s comments.
Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace announced on radio on Monday that he has written to the Governor General about the police chief’s actions.
Gonsalves, in his call to the radio station, said Charles is not just the nation’s police chief but is “an excellent police officer” who has been “an honest and decent man.
“In fact, fearless, and gives everybody a crack of the whip,” said Gonsalves.
“Now, the question of him wearing red, he has given an explanation that he goes, he melts in. He doesn’t want to appear to be different and so forth. I would think that a proper judgement would suggest that red going to ULP meeting or yellow going to NDP meeting is not wise. Maybe some neutral colour because it can create unnecessary optic questions,” Gonsalves said.
Charles told I-Witness News last week that he has worn yellow, the NDP’s colour, at an NDP rally earlier this year.
“In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I happen to be the Commissioner, the head of security, and from time to time, I will attend public meetings. In order to gain certain information and to see what is happening on the ground, you will have to blend in, hence the reason why I attended a public meeting and camouflaged with the crowd,” he said.
Gonsalves said that he thinks that Leacock, who he said knows Charles, will know he is a fair man and if a matter comes before him involving a ULP and NDP person he will address the matter professionally.
“And that is how he has addressed issues inside the Police Force, the management of the Force, and I have worked with him and I know that and I can vouch for that.
“But clearly, it is better that the identification not be made in the public in the manner that had been made,” Gonsalves said.
“Having said that, this is not a hanging offence, it is not a resignation offence. We have to be careful that we don’t follow mirages.”
He said that former police chiefs under the NDP, Randolph Toussaint and Osborne Quow, have been “very much supporters of the NDP.
“I cannot say whether in their functioning that they were partisan towards the NDP if a decision were to come before them of a policing kind or a management kind. But they were supporters of the NDP — and they told everyone that,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves said that in his interaction with the retired top cops before becoming prime minister, he never felt as if he was dealing with someone who didn’t take their office seriously.
“And I think that Michael Charles takes his office very seriously and this is a small country and you will know people and people know he is a good man.
“If people want in an election season to use Michael Charles to beat the ULP, then it is not going to work because I have just expressed my view and when I see him, I will express that view to him.”
Gonsalves, however, said he was not condoning the actions of the police chief.
“… but I want to affirm that he is wearing red does not in any way — and I want to give that assurance and my judgment of him — that he will not operate in a partisan manner in the conduct of his duties.”
The national security minister noted that the security chief has given his reasons why he wears red to ULP functions.
“You may agree or disagree with why he does it,” Gonsalves said, adding that he thinks it better that police officers wear neutral colours to political rallies.
“Because it may create in the climate in which we are and we are entering, … the wrong signals and wrong optic. But let us not throw a good man under the bus, if even you think he made an error of judgment.”
It is better for any senior police office to wear a neutral colour at any political event, Gonsalves said.
“It is an entirely different thing in relation to the personal security assigned to me that it is better for them to wear red — a red jersey and a black pants, because they more easily mingle to be able to protect the Prime Minister,” Gonsalves said.
He also addressed persons who may not have accepted Charles’ explanation that his colours are for security reasons rather than in support of the ULP.
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“If that is the case, you will say that he is making a statement — freedom of speech. Of course, public servants have certain limitations on their expressions of freedom of speech, by the very nature of their jobs.”
He said the same persons who want to hang the commissioner are the same ones who defended “a school teacher who was very abusive, and there was a release from the PRO of the Union supporting that teacher in her hurling of abuse at the Prime Minister…”
Gonsalves said citizens have to be proportionate and balanced and that is what he always asks for.
“And if there is a freedom of expression issue, if those who may wish to claim it, … if you are a public servant and you do not clothe yourself in yellow, but you clothe yourself in a series of words on Facebook and elsewhere, you are justifying your freedom of expression there but not the freedom of expression for somebody else? So let us have a sensible discussion on this matter,” he said.