THE increasing number of viral videos depicting physical confrontations between the police and civilians over the past weeks has been a cause of concern for law enforcement officers.
Public and social disorder has become the ‘norm’ especially in these times as people globally endure the hardships and heartbreaks brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while the police are duty bound to uphold law and order in the land, some level of discretion or empathy should be afforded to citizens who fall foul of the law for minor offences.
Can the police not employ a more ‘conciliatory approach’ to deal with suspected offenders in contrast to the confrontational or retaliatory manner used in carrying out their duties?
Speaking at a press briefing, on Tuesday, Superintendent of Police in charge of crime, George Nicholas, told reporters that officers are duty bound to enforce the law in the execution of their duties. At the same time, he sought to allay the fears of the public concerning filing complaints against officers that they perceive as using ‘excessive force’ to carry out their duties will be dealt with accordingly.
“In recent times we have seen some videos that are going viral where members of the public put up resistance and opposition to the police in the execution of their duties,” said Nicholas. He recalled a number of incidents that has occurred lately, and more recently the fracas between police and members of the public at Soufriere.
While addressing these concerns, Nicholas issued a word of caution to the public, stating: “We the members of the Royal St Lucia Police Force [RSLPF] have a responsibility to enforce the laws of this country and once we find that the laws are being broken, we will take action.”
He added, “We have exercised a lot of restraint and we have been very tolerant of the situation and it’s a warning to members of the public that when the police are out there carrying out our functions (duties), if you are not involved, please do not get involved.”
Nicholas said that as a consequence of persons obstructing the police from doing their work, some law-abiding citizens get into the fray and “they jump on the band wagon and increase the resistance to the police.”
He urged members of the public to maintain an orderly conduct when at the scene of incidents involving the police, “because these same videos that are going viral will be used against you …and once we can identify persons in those videos and once we can ascertain that they have committed an infringement of the law, they are going to be taken into custody and to be dealt with according to the law.”
The latest such incident occurred on Monday outside the Roman Catholic Cathedral, in Castries, when police confronted a man who was apparently one of the attendants at a funeral service. In the ensuing melee and through videos on social media, it shows a male officer drawing his firearm in an effort to apprehend a suspected offender.
And just last week there was another reported incident outside the JQ Mall, at Rodney Bay, where a young man was apprehended and taken into custody for his alleged confrontation with two police officers.
Responding to queries as to the extent by which the use of force or brandishing a firearm is substantiated, Nicholas explained that there are provisions in the constitution to justify the use of firearms by officers carrying out their duties.
“Drawing a firearm can be considered as a level of force by itself, but using it is something different,” he continued, “When an officer has used his or her firearm during an incident it would mean that the officer at the time believes his /or her life or the life of someone else is in jeopardy.”
Alternately, he said, if an officer has been found ‘wanting’, the officer would be subjected to the same law that is being enforced.
In providing a general overview of the situation, Police Commissioner Milton Desir admitted that there are certain measures that can be taken to handle different situations.
“Every situation is different …and most times people start video recording (incidents) when things have accelerated,” he said.
Desir added, “Where an officer has told an individual that they are under arrest for a certain offence, which is an arrestable offence the individual can either choose to comply with the police or should the person resist, the officer has the authority to exercise his/her powers of arrest under the law.”
Taking a stern view of events that has occurred recently, he said, resisting an arrest or assaulting an officer is an offence.
Desir warned, “We need to take action, we are seeing too many instances of persons just disregarding law and order …we believe that if you are to see a decline in crime in St. Lucia, persons need to change their attitude and behaviour.
In the event of an incident, he said, there are many options available to the officers and “every situation would differ.”
He added, “We also have instances where passersby …would incite this individual being pursued by the police to desist.”
The police commissioner asserted: “Persons need to change their attitude and behaviour if we are to see the ‘Helen of the West’ again. If not, we are getting out of hand and the police would have a strong hand on that.”
Desir said this was not a threat to members of the public, but the officers will not condone such unruly behaviour “as we cannot allow that to happen and the police will intervene.”