Public Outcry over ‘Police Abuse’

By Reginald Andrew

While the rallying cry globally is being directed against ‘police abuse’, social activists in Saint Lucia have also joined the refrain, calling for more restraint from the police in dealing with civilians for minor offences.

There has been several incidents of uproar between the police and members of the public, lately, resulting in a level of social protest for perceived infringements by law enforcement officers.

There is no denying that the cops too, have been on the receiving end having to deal with incidents of civil disobedience. Most notably, case in point is the fracas that occurred at Soufriere and Gros Islet recently.

However, the troubling matter pertains to the hostile manner that police use to apprehend individuals as opposed to handling a group or crowd disturbance.

And now that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has taken on an unprecedented impetus globally, a local BLM representative is among other concerned citizens expressing displeasure with recent ‘hostile infractions’ between police and individuals.

“Saint Lucians, we have reached a stage where really and truly, we can’t breathe – literally we can’t breathe having a mask in your face all day,” declared Aaron “Ras Iron” Alexander, the BLM representative on island.

Alexander voiced strong objection to the manner in which the police attempted to apprehend a ‘dreadlocks man’ in full public view, last week, describing it as a ‘despicable act’.

He condemned the action of a police officer who grabbed the man by his locks while arresting him. Subsequently, the scene unfolded into a viral video on social media last week- another worrying trend that is a cause of concern to law enforcement officers, locally.

Alexander said he watched the video of officers manhandling the man ‘just because of a mask.’

He further complained that if people take off the mask for a little while to get some fresh air, the police breathe down their necks. Alexander stressed:  “This is total abuse of police powers.”

The social activist opines that such abuse of power constitutes to a disregard for human and personal rights.

“And we really have to examine why is it we have to be brutalising our people, all in the name of not wearing a mask at one point in time,” Alexander stated.

He called on the police to reexamine the manner in which they carry out their duties as ‘custodians of the law’.

“It really and truly reminds us again of how Brother George Floyd lost his life at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin,” Alexander said.

Referring to the George Floyd incident where a police officer has been convicted for causing the death of Floyd, he added:  “When I saw that police officer grab the young man by his hair, having his hand in the man’s hair, almost as if he is fixated and pulling the man’s hair; this is not how I am sure he was taught to do his job as a police officer and we must condemn this kind of action.”

As the BLM movement gains momentum, last weekend, the BBC’s Global Questions feature highlighted: What has the BLM movement achieved?

The panelists included a co-founder of the BLM and a British conservative human rights campaigner. While the BLM representative noted that the movement has usurped strong public outcry against ‘racial injustice’ and against all forms of injustice generally; the British conservative adamantly expressed the view that the BLM organizers were reaping ‘financial gains’ from the situation.

However, the general consensus originating from questionnaires out of South Korea, China, the USA and UK was that people were fed up with the high handed manner perpetuated by the system in employing the ‘rule of law’.

Meanwhile, human rights activist and lawyer Mary Francis has also spoken out against what she perceives as the abuse of power by the police. She complained that the police use ‘excessive force’ to deal with matters pertaining to the covid-19 protocols, such as accosting persons for not wearing a mask.

Francis, has previously recommended that a ‘monitoring body’ be established to deal with actions by the state and its citizenry, but the suggestion has not been addressed by the authorities.

The human rights lawyer contends that while it is mandatory for persons to wear the mask to safeguard against the coronavirus, nonetheless, the underlying factors such as the social, psychological, health and economic impact on the citizenry should also be taken into account.

She said that while the ‘use of force’ legislation was enacted years ago and there are different circumstances pertaining to that issue, however “drawing of a firearm so frequently is not a very good way of performing their functions.”

Francis added, “Who knows, sometimes there can be a mess and there can be a fatality …and for persons to lose their life just for not wearing a mask.”

She said the police need to be aware of this ‘worrisome situation’ that has been occurring more frequently, lately and is turning out as a ‘despot’ for enforcing the law.

Francis adds that she does not condone persons breaching the law, but the authorities need to strike a balance due to the impact the virus has on the ‘mindset’ of the people.

“There needs to be proper monitoring of those powers given to the police under the Covid Act…it is regrettable that some kind of  monitoring system was not put in place as part of the legislation,” she asserted.

The human rights advocate noted that though persons have an option of lodging complaints with the Police Complaints Unit, over the years, the PCU has been overburdened with complaints.

“People have been calling for an Independent Complaints Commission to investigate excessive force by the police,” said Francis. “So now to add upon the inefficiency that has been existing at the police complaints unit and to add to those measures …will not actually solve the problem at all.”

Reiterating her dissatisfaction with the manner in which police officers carry out their duties, Francis asked, “Why should guns be pulled out to execute an arrest?”, for confronting persons resisting arrest or trying to get an explanation. She said it would be a different matter if the police are under threat for confronting persons with a knife or other weapon.

Referring to a latter incident making the rounds on social media with the police grabbing the hair of an individual, she complained, “Can you imagine the pain that was caused to the young man.”

Francis stressed: “Certainly, this is not the way. That is a form of brutality and the police themselves are probably under pressure, because they are human beings too and they have to undergo the same pressure and impact that Covid is having on our lives.”

This issue brings into sharp focus the notion of a more ‘conciliatory approach’ as opposed to the confrontational manner in apprehending citizens that fall afoul of the law.

A conciliatory approach is defined as ‘An approach in negotiation that seeks to overcome the distrust or animosity of one’s counterpart” or “intended to gain goodwill or favor or to reduce hostility”.

Critics argue that in this ensuing saga, hostile agitation on the part of the police will only compound matters, resulting in the likelihood of ‘civil disobedience.”

Noting that such incidents do not augur well for relations between the police and the public, Alexander called on the Police Community Relations Branch and the Police Commissioner to condemn such behaviour.

“Respect must flow both ways,” he added.

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