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Former Commissioner of Police tells it like it is

Former Commissioner of Police tells it like it is

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“The job was divorced from politics. He didn’t mix matters. We could be friends, but when it came to the job, friends had nothing to do with it.”

Those are the words of former Commissioner of Police (COP) William Harry as he reflected on the service of another former COP, Benjamin “Ben” Jackson.{{more}}

Ben Jackson agrees with Harry’s description of him. It represented what he stood for and what propelled him to the honoured position of COP.

Ben’s eventful life began on August 16, 1933, when he was born in New Grounds to his mother Katharine, who was “both mother and father,” he forthrightly stated, when questioned about his father.

After attending the Union Methodist Primary School, Ben taught for three years at the same school as a part time teacher under what was a common teach and study programme.

Unfortunately for the teaching profession, but very fortunate, it proved to be for the police force, Ben was not one of the teachers selected to continue teaching after the three-year programme finished.

So in 1952, after working as a bookkeeper for a short while, Ben Jackson became a police officer, and judging from what he said, the discipline is what impressed him most about the Force.

“The discipline,” he said: “It is something I respect up to now; you do as you were told.”

It is no surprise that his star shone brightly and he made it to the top of the pile.

By 1960, after eight years on the job, Jackson was a Sergeant, and 12 years and five promotions later, in October of 1972, he was Deputy Commissioner.

He told SEARCHLIGHT that he believes that besides his hard work, the fact that he was based at the main office for a long time aided his climb.

“When you worked at the office, you had more scope,” Jackson admitted.

He also received additional training when he was sent to Hendon Training School in London for five months, while he was an Acting Inspector.

However, the celebration of his October 6, 1972, appointment as Deputy Commissioner was short-lived, Jackson explained, as the next few months would prove very trying.

Jackson was caught in the middle of a political power struggle. Suddenly, the “light in the tunnel” that he said he saw leading to the Commissioner’s chair in 1971, when he was made Superintendent, started to fade.

On October 7, 1972, the Government Gazette published that the post of Deputy Commissioner had been abolished.

What had happened is that Sir James Mitchell, then Premier, had sanctioned Jackson’s appointment, along with that of COP Robert O’Garro, following the retirement of their predecessors.

However, while Mitchell was abroad, then acting Premier E.T. Joshua had moved against the appointment.

The legal battle went on for months, before he was eventually named Senior Assistant Commissioner. The post of Deputy Commissioner was reinstated in 1975, and he held that until his appointment as COP in 1977.

“I remember the controversy,” said Sir James when SEARCHLIGHT contacted him.

“I didn’t want the police politicized, so I stood my ground on the issue…Jackson was a good police officer who served this country well,” he said.

As he reflected on his time as COP, Jackson couldn’t help but reflect on the one disappointment, the thing that haunted him about his time in that honourable chair.

And as we interviewed him over the phone, you could almost see him shaking his head in disappointment from Barbados where he now lives with his second wife Eloise.

“My biggest problem with the police force was the political directorate. I voted for a party but didn’t support a party,” he said, adding “I never saw the support of a political party as part of my agenda.”

“Part of me being in Barbados was because I was not willing to bend to political wishes,” he told SEARCHLIGHT frankly.

Jackson spoke of many run-ins with the late Hudson Tannis, who was then Minister of National Security under the St. Vincent Labour Party Government, who he claims tried many times to influence him in the execution of his duty, which he fiercely resisted.

“The Minister wanted to run the police from his desk, but I wanted him to respect the independence of my office,” Jackson said.

He recalled an incident when a man imported a truck chassis that didn’t meet licensing specifications – it was too long.

Jackson said that he instructed the owner that he had to get it cut, but then two weeks later got a memo saying that Cabinet had decided to accommodate the applicant.

“I responded by letting them know that by saying they agreed to accommodate the applicant they were overlooking the law,” Jackson said.

He said that he made it clear that if the applicant needed to appeal a decision made by the Licensing Authority, then he had to appeal to the Chairman of the Transport Board, whose decision would be final.

The catch was that Jackson was also the Chairman of the Transport Board.

“In a matter of weeks, the guy cut it and it was approved for the road,” he said.

There was another time when Tannis, Jackson claims, intervened on the behalf of a constituent who was not accepted into the police force and was disappointed that he did not budge from his decision, for stated reasons, not to accept the applicant into the Force.

The run-ins were too numerous to list for the interview, Jackson said.

But it would be 1979 that would test his mettle and give him the greatest challenge and greatest honour.

In March of 1979, the late Maurice Bishop led the coup that toppled the Eric Gairy administration in Grenada.

“I had to put our police on alert, because there were sympathizers of that movement here,” he said.

On April 13, La Soufrière erupted, forcing the evacuation of more than 17,000 persons from the northern end of St. Vincent.

“Many days I couldn’t sleep. We had to evacuate the people.”

Then came the proud night of October 27, 1979, when as COP, he was central to the organizing of what transpired that night, when this country gained its political independence from Britain.

He had so much to do that when the first Prime Minister, the late Robert Milton Cato, refused to excuse him from the pre-flag raising dinner at Government House so that he could make sure all was in place for the ceremony, he had to pull a fast one.

“I looked at the dinner invitation and realized that it was from the Governor-General and not the Prime Minister, so I asked the Governor-General for leave and he granted me

it,” he said, with a slight chuckle.

The threat that he believed was posed by people aligned to Bishop’s movement was also being bargained for that night.

Jackson revealed that heavily armed police officers were placed in strategic positions around Victoria Park and prior to Independence night, acting on intelligence he had received, a hole was dug and a generator hidden in it, close to the park, in case the electricity service was disrupted.

Now comes December 1979!

“No surrender. Tell the officers they have to die with their boots on and may God be with them.”

Jackson says that it is still difficult to speak about the situation that led to him uttering those words.

Word came that a band of Union Islanders was staging an uprising – within 48 hours of the just concluded general elections, and among other things, they were bombing the police station – attacking the officers on duty.

They were being called on to surrender by the insurrectionists, but their COP, though fearing the worst for his men, would have none of it.

A State of Emergency was enforced, including a curfew.

“I remember telling the Prime Minister not to move from his home until I sent for him,” Jackson recalled.

The government sent to Barbados for help from the Barbados Defence Force, and while they waited, Jackson prayed to God for direction, planned to deal with the situation, and gave instructions to his men, determined to crush the uprising before night fall.

“I told the Prime Minister (Robert Milton Cato) that I couldn’t let nightfall come with this situation, and that if I succeed I don’t want any recognition, but if I failed my resignation will be on his desk the next day.”

By the time the Barbados troops arrived at Union Island, the back of the uprising was already broken by local police.

Jackson is, however, thankful that based on information gathered during the investigation after the uprising, had it not been for an act of God, the uprising could have been worse and more drawn out.

It was revealed that a shipment of automatic weapons that was sent from Grenada to Carriacou for Union Island never arrived because the boat that went for them sank.

The virtual end of Jackson’s tenure as COP came in 1980, when Prime Minister Cato, without discussion with him, summoned Scotland Yard detectives to investigate a high profile murder in the Villa area.

“I couldn’t live with that. It wasn’t that Scotland Yard was called, but that it was done without my knowledge… I distanced myself from them when they were there, and in the end they told the Prime Minister that everything they did, the local detectives had already done,” Jackson said.

So in 1982, he asked for early retirement, and when a move to Miami didn’t work out, in 1983, he eventually took up the position as Staff Officer, which was second in command at the newly formed, Barbados-based Regional Security System (RSS).

He served the RSS for seven years and since then has managed his own security consultancy firm, headed up the security department of a hotel, served as property manager at the same hotel, and now, happily retired.

Jackson, a father of four, told SEARCHLIGHT that despite the testing times, he enjoyed his career, and policing was his life.

He has on more than one occasion refused to be granted honours for his service, including once when Prime Minister Cato told him that he was being recommended for a Queen’s honour, the MBE.

“I was not interested in a British honour,” he said.

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