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Storm in a teacup, or tsunami at the door?


In our Midweek edition of Tuesday, July 18, 2017, SEARCHLIGHT carried on our front page a story that carried two elements.  First, in a leaked voice note, someone believed to be among the leadership of the Police Welfare Association (PWA) called upon the executive to “storm the Prime Minister’s Office” to protest unresolved grievances the PWA is seeking to bring to the attention of the Commissioner of the Police and the Prime Minister. Second, on being made aware of the leaked voice note and its call to storm the Prime Minister’s Office, the Police Commissioner reassigned three PWA executive members to other duties.

These two events have now become a lightning rod for debate on matters ranging from the rights of workers’ organizations such as the PWA, the wisdom of retaliatory actions by employers against workers’ organizations, the legal remedies available to workers, including the police, who seek protection against punitive actions, and of course, the rights and power of the police leadership to discipline members who it deems to be in violation of the codes of conduct it requires from its members. And since no public dispute in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) can escape the gravitational pull of its poisoned political climate, partisans are already aligned in deep formation to attack or defend the Government, which in the strictest terms is not a party to this conflict. After all, the police were apparently disciplined by the Commissioner of Police, who has the legal authority to transfer and/or assign any member of the force to any lawful task consistent with their terms of employment.   

In the froth of this storm that has suddenly erupted, there are really only two questions deserving of an answer. First, was the PWA’s officers call for the storming of the Prime Minister’s Office unworthy of the conduct expected of the police? The answer to that question is a simple yes. The police in SVG hold a position that no other workers occupy. They are the only ones tasked with preserving the peace and security of the state. They are the only ones legally authorized to carry firearms and to kill Vincentians in the exercise of their duties. They represent the greatest coercive power that the Vincentian state possesses and as such, cannot and must not do anything whatsoever that calls into question the principle of civilian supremacy over the police.

The call by police for police to storm the office of the Prime Minister does just that. It is almost certainly not the intent of the PWA to issue such a challenge. But the fulminations by at least one other police officer on social media has done precisely that, calling for the forced removal of the Prime Minister from office. This call for a coup d’état serves to underline the centrality of caution in the police’s language of dissent and how the police constabulary must exercise good discretion in how they construct their relationship with our civilian leadership.

The second question that therefore arises is this: was it an appropriate and lawful exercise of the Commissioner’s authority to discipline the officers in the manner he has? Here we need absolute clarity and transparency by the Police Commissioner. The officers understood themselves to have been disciplined. The public understands the officers to have been disciplined. Nothing the Commissioner says or does can remove that conclusion. 

What is less clear, however, is the claim made by the police and others that the actions taken against the officers are, in fact, an assault on the PWA itself. The PWA is the legitimate organization of the police and has the right and the obligation to represent and advance the interests of their members. No action taken by the Commissioner should seek to undermine that right. The Commissioner therefore ought to make it very clear that the grievances of the PWA will be heard, their duly elected leaders respected, and a course of action be implemented to resolve their grievances. At a time when our police have to confront lethal threats on a scale without precedent in the history of SVG, it is vital that the rank and file of the police are on the same page.  The cohesiveness of the police is critical to the ongoing struggle against violent crime. 

Right now the ongoing dispute between the PWA and the Police Commissioner amounts to little more than a storm in a teapot. But if our police are allowed to challenge and thereby corrupt the principle of civilian supremacy over our police, or the PWA becomes demoralized in its mission to advance the interest of its members, all Vincentians will suffer. And the storm in the teapot can become the tsunami at our doors.