Three months after being criticised for saying that police officers don’t have to recite the beatitudes when confronting “hardened criminals”, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves is calling for a better relationship between the police and the nation’s youth.
“I want to commend the police on helping to make us safer. But I am concerned that some police officers who are confronting persons who are not hardened criminals — because persons who are hardened criminals, I’ve said before you’re not obliged to recite the beatitudes to them — but I want to make a plea for better relationship between the police and young men on the block for a greater understanding of each other,” Gonsalves said on Monday at his first press conference for the year.
“And these men on the block, they have their rights, individual rights and freedoms and some matters have come to my attention where there are plausible allegations that sometimes some police officers are not as scrupulous as they ought to be in their professional pursuit of their duties and within the four walls of the law,” said Gonsalves, who has ministerial responsibility for national security, including the police force.
The prime minister’s comments were inspired by a conversation that he had with a group of young people from the Diamond area, whom he met during a visit to Milton Cato Memorial Hospital over the holidays.
He said that he invited the youth to come and visit him and a group of young persons, whom he invited, after a conversation with them there, to come to see him.
Twelve young people went to see him, including a male shopkeeper and his girlfriend and 10 other young men.
“We had a long conversation and during the conversation I asked the commissioner [of police] if he was winding up his usual Friday meeting and he and senior officers came over after about half an hour, and they too joined the conversation,” Gonsalves told the media.
The prime minister said every member of the group had attended secondary school, but they did not all complete their secondary education.
He noted that four of them had CXC passes, some had dropped out at Form 3 or 4, and one was a Grammar School graduate who had nine CXCs but had dropped out of the associate degree programme at the Community College “because he was informed by someone or he received the information that the associate degrees are not accredited, ain’t worth anything, so he left”.
“We have to be careful what we say eh. People are listening. We have to be careful. Young people are listening.”
One of the youngsters was a footballer, “whom I had dealt with before — he had an injury,” Gonsalves said, adding that another had played cricket at the under-15 level.
He said all of the youth are “articulate”, and although most of them had not written any subjects, some of them are farming and one or two work in construction, electrical work and the like.
“And, of course, one of them openly said, ‘Prime minister, I am not a saint’,” Gonsalves said.
“But how many saints are there in the world? I can’t remember anybody being canonised as a saint from St. Vincent and the Grenadines as yet. And even saints are sinners who have come to redemption. And from the conversation, and when the commissioner came, there are things which the police have to pay attention to.
“When you take people’s cell phones and you examine them, you must return them with promptitude to people. If somebody tells you he is a farmer and you take his tools, which a responsible person had purchased for him, because he works with a responsible person on a farm, if you take the tool because you might have a suspicion — I don’t know — those tools should be returned with promptitude. They are not part of any criminal enterprise.
“You can’t also go to somebody place and break down the door and mash up furniture inside [because] you are a police. You can’t do that.
“You know, we have to make sure in this small country that we do our best to live in peace and have tolerance,” Gonsalves said.
He said he knows there are “hardened criminals” in the area and last year, a couple of persons were killed there.
“I don’t know if by people in the area or people who have gone into the area. I don’t know. I’m not commenting on that. But I’m commenting on the broad issue because if the police don’t function in relation to young people, in a manner with sensitivity, you can create problems additional to those which exist. At the same time, the police, they are frontline in establishing law and order.”
Gonsalves said the issues raised by the youth are not new to him, “because, as a practicing lawyer, I knew of many cases.
“A policeman cannot be a bandit. You can’t take away somebody’s gold chain or bangle and don’t make a proper record of them and if you have reasonable suspicion that they were stolen or unlawfully obtained, they must be returned with promptitude if your reasonable suspicion is not well grounded,” the prime minister said.
He said police officers are now better qualified, trained and equipped to do their job.
“I would not like to see that the efforts which the police are making legitimately, the overwhelming majority of police, the police youth clubs, the pan against crime, that those are undermined by persons from the force who may engage in gratuitous violence or who may not sufficiently respect people’s person and their property.”
Gonsalves said he is there all the time making sure the police are in a better shape.
“But I must report to the nation the results of this very good conversation. I don’t believe everything that they said to me but that is why I said that there were things which were said which were credible and plausible. And I have been around a long time. And that is not any critique of any individual policeman. I’m just alerting that we have to behave professionally. Doesn’t mean that the policeman has to become like a civil servant. It’s called a police force. And if you meet hardened criminals, you have to know how to deal with them.
“But I’m calling for good sense, especially also in light of when persons are going to be allowed under the law to have up to two ounces of cannabis.”
He said that when the law is passed, persons would be still be fined for the drug but would not receive a criminal record for quantities up to two ounces.
“… they (police officers) must continue to use the tolerance and try to be professional at all times. I know it is very difficult; they have a very difficult job. But, I think, at the beginning of this new year, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say things to put matters in a balanced perspective,” Gonsalves said.
In October, the main opposition New Democratic Party suggested that some police officers are taking the law into their own hands in an attempt to solve crime in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The party also suggested that the errant police officers may be spurred on to be abusive to suspects and accused persons because of Gonsalves’ beatitudes statement.
The NDP’s comments came amidst an allegation, by suspended Police Constable Ettian Charles, who is facing several charges, that the Commissioner of Police was among officers who beat him when he was arrested in connection with the Sept. 15, 2018 robbery of Twana Browne-Caesar, wife of Minister of Agriculture, Saboto Caesar.
Gonsalves, responding to an opposition question in parliament, dismissed the allegation, saying there would be no investigation, as the police chief had denied beating the accused man.