Private Column by Frank Short, CBE
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Monday, 15 April 2013 12:00 AM

Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 42: Police Problems. Our own dirty linen surfaces.

Extract from my memoirs.

One understands that after commenting on the media and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament who was destined to become a Governor General, one should not forget one’s own backyard – where unfortunately, our own internal dirty linen, including levels of police malpractice had begun to surface.

It had been a daily practice of mine, since the beginning, to hold a one hour meeting with all senior executives from 7am to 8am to share information and to give briefings on operational requirements and at which time ongoing policy was discussed, updated and formulated.

Initially, the Deputy Commissioner, Morton Siriheti, was enthusiastic about such early morning meetings, but as the storm clouds gathered he began missing the sessions, claiming he needed to take his daughter to school. His attitude towards me also changed radically and he often spent hours in his adjoining office without so much as exchanging a word.

A ridiculous situation… especially in the light of the escalating unrest. Where was his mindset?

Then I found a probable cause…

For many years, prior to my arrival, selection for vacant police positions and for promotion had been done on an ad hoc basis and, from what I was told, ‘favourites’ were given unfair advantages. That was now changed by instituting selection and promotion boards which levelled the playing field for all to see. It certainly helped morale; but unfortunately hit deeper than some officers liked.

The Deputy Commissioner had been and still was at that time president of the board – ah… ha…

The first board which I did have some control over was held in late 1998 and completed in early 1999. Board members consisted of several other senior staff, including the commander of the NRSF, Michael Wheatley. Recommendations were made for my consideration before being forwarded to the Police and Prisons Service Commission for approval.

At the time I was given the board’s list of promotion recommendations, there surfaced information regarding the misuse of police funds.

This financial scandal surfaced because a ‘whistle blower’ tipped me off that money had been loaned to many serving and past members of the Force but had never been paid back. The informant, a junior police officer, had applied for a sum of money as a loan to help pay for funeral expenses. He was told there was no money left to help him.

The source of these loans was the Police Club at Rove which made an annual profit – excellent.

These profits, were mainly from sales of alcohol, and were deposited into the equivalent of a Credit Union account under the supervision of the secretary, who was the Commandant of the Police Academy at the time. The original aim was to use the profits as short term loans to help out officers with the type of problem that had caused the scandal to surface.

I did two things immediately.

First, I called for all the books and went over them.

They showed that large sums of money had, indeed, been paid out to several senior serving and past officers, including the former Police Commissioner and the present Deputy Commissioner, but no trace of any return payments. There were enough loans to show a deliberate raiding of police funds by a select few senior or other insiders from within the police hierarchy.

One example showed a Chief Inspector on the staff of the Police Academy had been loaned so much money, it was difficult to see how he could possibly repay it from his salary alone: nor was there any sign of any attempt to make any form of repayment.

And this was interest free money…

He was also one of those officers who, along with other delinquents had been recommended to me for promotion.

The Governor of the Central Bank had the responsibility in terms of the Credit Union’s charter to audit the books annually; however this had never been done.

The second positive action was to hand carry to his office the account records, including cheque stubs, for auditing purposes. There his office soon discovered that there had indeed been malpractice.

Then the inquiry stopped, or at least nothing actually happened about the problem from the Governor of the Central Bank before my departure.

I also appeared before the Police and Prison Service Commission and explained to the Chairman and members why I had blocked the promotions of certain members of the police.

The Chairman, who happened to be the Chief Justice, agreed.

However my Deputy Commissioner, Siriheti, who had chaired the promotion board, was angry when I refused to promote those who still owed money. He complained bitterly.

In fact Siriheti never spoke to me again, not even when I left, and he also refused to acknowledge the handing over notes I had prepared for him as I departed office.

So much for the responsibilities of his office which he appeared to totally ignore.

On top of our internal problems we also had in these early months of 1999, raids on secondary schools and tourist resorts, such as Tavanipupu; beginning raids on the property of Gold Ridge Mine, the coastal villages and commercial properties in west Guadalcanal, including the Coastal Aquaculture Centre (ICLARM) and other inshore marine resources; also the displacement of thousands of Malaitan plantation workers.

Militant activity on Guadalcanal intensified with militants erecting barriers, both east and west of Honiara, preventing police patrols from entering the areas. When police units did try to penetrate the roadblocks they were fired upon and forced to retreat.

We, the police, had become incapable of doing our job mainly by virtue of the escalation tactics of the militants. In many cases, we were unable to respond as was expected of us. Militant activity on Guadalcanal itself intensified while our operational units had neither protective equipment, nor modified riot vehicles for patrol and the police travelled in open or soft skinned vehicles when responding to incidents.

Yes, we did carry firearms; however my attitude still was that we were a police force operating amongst mostly peaceful people in the Islands and that a few militants were not going to turn the police into becoming what they were not trained to do as an organization.

Yes, they were also under strict orders on carrying and using their weapons.

There were some members of the police, coupled with certain politicians who demanded that I issue police firearms to the public; especially the beleaguered members of the Malaitan community under threat. A ridiculous and an illegal proposal and one that I totally refused to do under any circumstances.

However, when one looks around the world today and sees places like Libya, Syria, Congo and some countries in the south Pacific where family killings led to more family killings, I believe we should be thankful that I kept armed police responses to the absolute minimum and that when RAMSI arrived, the Islands were able to get back into balance rather quickly.

What would have been the situation if I had allowed the police to use the sophisticated and high powered military weaponry available to us; ‘brother being pitted against brother,’ in a political situation being engineered by power hungry politicians juggling to keep or gain power within the framework and fringes of the SIAC government.

Not on my watch…and the history of the ‘conflict’ bears testimony in the words of many, including Human Rights Watch, that in the early stages of the Islands ordeal, “the police maintained a gentle and dignified composure, avoiding retaliation and focusing exclusively on peace and social stability as their primary responsibilities.’

Did I really want a protracted civil war to happen here in the Solomon Islands where we had a head start because of the laid back good nature of the people? An emphatic – no – to any suggestion that I did.

Yes, we did have the unfortunate incident on Bungana Island: however it was only one incident and the guilty parties were punished. What would have happened do you think if there had been a dozen such incidents? Would the healing process have got under way so quickly?

I doubt it.

While here, there are a few more comments that I consider relevant.

Media comments, which seemed to be orchestrated from behind the scenes, from within the Islands, tended to be aimed at mainly myself and included a spate of racial undertones.

My memory remembers journalist Mary O’Callaghan once writing in her usual flowery, fatuous tone, words to the effect that Ishmael Pada was interned standing up in order to place a curse on my life; claiming that I had overseen the first police killing in the Solomon’s history.

And, of course, Michael Field of AFP had to match O'Callaghan when he reported that I had no respect for the peace process and at the time of the Panatina Agreement claimed that I should be blamed for the ethnic troubles and the fleeing of thousands of people to Honiara.

Attitudes at the time could be considered – from my point of view… personally unreasonable… yet from others…politically reasonable… “militant reasonable” – It boils down to where one was situated in this situation.

Did I care? Yes I did. Because those raised voices seemingly failed to understand that I stood between their ideals of corruption and misuse of influence that was steadily bringing the Islands to a grinding halt. True…as the nation realized over time.

Yes, I do have a background.

I am British and proud of my ethnic heritage – are not most Solomon Islanders proud of their own heritage?

Oh.. and a professional police officer who was selected to become the Police Commissioner of the Solomon Islands because of a proven track record of competence and honesty.

The unfolding crisis did begin to highlight more problems within the senior police executive; perhaps not surprising given what has been described so far.

There was one incident in particular when the operations commander, Chief Superintendent John Gatu, was ordered to deploy police to SIPL to prevent an attack on Malaitan workers located there, but failed to carry out those orders. In the absence of the police, several houses were burnt and SIPL vehicles badly damaged. This incident sounded the death knell of SIPL's operations

Then we had another occasion, when Gatu failed to send police immediately, as had been ordered, to Visale where a stolen motor vehicle had been located in the possession of the GRA. When the police did finally go to the scene some 24 hours later, the vehicle had been removed and it was not recovered.

To be continued …

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Frank Short, CBE and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.