In a week in which Honiara has experienced a spate of robberies with the theft of an ATM machine, reportedly, by armed men and an incident in which more than S$50,000 was snatched by two men from an accountant of Honiara Casino outside Westpac Bank in Point Cruz, it is understandable there has been widespread public concern over the growing crime rate in the national capital.

The acting police commissioner is claimed to have said on Thursday last week that ‘the police cannot address the rise in unlawful activities and the behaviour of the youths on the streets. It needs the support of all citizens to act responsibly and play a part in fighting-anti social behaviour and criminal activities.’

Anti-social behaviour, substance abuse, alcoholism and crime are all associated with the wider problems of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, including urban drift, and such issues must be addressed by the government.

Creating work for the unemployed against a backdrop of a high birth rate, school drop outs, poor prospects for rural income pursuits and a relaxation of social values and morals, will create immense challenges to any incoming government.

The decline in the role of customary chiefs, tribal elders and local courts has added to the overall problems the country faces.

The churches, parents and teachers can all play a role in re-enforcing values and setting a proper example to the younger generation but these days it seems few, if any, are listening.

While the ordinary citizen must be encouraged to support the police the police themselves must be disciplined and trusted or otherwise there could be the danger of citizens acting as vigilantes, as seems to have been hinted at in recent media reports.

The Solomon Islands Cabinet in October 2013 approved the limited re-introduction of firearms for the Royal Solomon Islands Police and, in the last few days, the RAMSI Special Coordinator has released selected details of the Mission’s draw down strategy for the police service, including information on the key capacity developments in terms of limited re-armament.

At the time when the then Minister for Police, National Security and Corrections, Chris Laore, announced the Cabinet’s decision to re-introduce limited re-armament, he claimed that, ‘in November 2004, following three gun amnesties, one report estimated that, roughly, 220 high powered weapons remained in the community.’ Three years later in 2007, the number of firearms of all types still in private possession was estimated to be 1,775.
Last week’s robbery in Honiara indicates that arms are still in the hands of those who seek to carry out violent crimes by using firearms, licensed weapons or not.

I am on record as stating that it seems reasonable to me for the RSIP’s Close Protection Unit to be retrained and, if based on a threat assessment, to be provided with arms for the personal safety and security of the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Such a unit should be constantly identifying any areas requiring improvements and rectify them promptly, including staff development and strong operational excellence.

I cannot comment on the need to re-arm the police deployed to the International Airport or to the Police Response Team, but I have noted that the RAMSI Special Coordinator has said there will be a rigorous assessment and training and wide consultation with the government and the broadest cross section of the Solomon Islands communities.

I still emphasise caution, however, with the re-arming proposal overall and I understand it to be a concern also expressed by the well known and knowledgeable Solomon Island’s academic, Dr. Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka writing in the Pacific Islands Report and broadcast, widely, in Radio New Zealand’s International news bulletins. Dr. Tara raises the question – ‘Why are we re-arming ourselves, who are we fighting against? Our past experiences have shown that when we have arms, we use it against our own nationals and therefore, I’m not certain whether this is the time to re-arm Solomon Islands police.’

Why do I still sound my own note of caution?

Despite all my very strict orders on the control and use of firearms that I issued during my term in office as the Police Commissioner my orders were not strictly obeyed and, in testament to this, the Bungana Report, commissioned after the shooting incident on Bungana Island in 1999, contained these comments made by the New Zealand Police detective in charge of the investigation. ‘The Commissioner did everything possible to control the use of arms, cognizant of human rights and in accord with accepted international policing standards.’ The report went on to say that I had been let down by my officers, either neglectfully or wilfully.

From the onset of my appointment I issued a policy document on the use of force and this was presented to the Commissioners’ of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner when I appeared before them in October 2010. Ever mindful of my duty and care, both to the public and the police service, this is what I had written in my policy document:

‘The members of the Solomon Islands Police should be able to carry out most of their duties without having to resort to force. Conflict resolution skills must be learned for resolving all types of conflicts.

‘We must be committed to the use of minimum force when dealing with incidents. The members of the force must, therefore, have access to training and equipment, which obviates the need for force to resolve problems. Any laws and police regulations, which act contrary to the use of minimum force, should be amended to bring them in line with International standards. Although the members of the police service will still need to be issued with adequate equipment to protect themselves in dangerous situations, they must only be issued with weapons which are appropriate to the situation they are likely to encounter.’

Subsequently, and at the onset of the national ordeal, now commonly referred to the period of ‘ethnic conflict,’ I wrote this order.

‘It should be constantly borne in mind that, however well justified a police officer may consider himself in firing, the act, whether it results in loss of life, or otherwise, may become the subject of investigation. He must therefore be prepared to prove that he acted with humanity, caution and prudence, and that he was compelled by necessity alone to have recourse to firearms. At the same time he must not be deterred from doing what, in the circumstances in which he is placed, appears to be absolutely necessary, as a last resort, in the interests of law and order.’

The local media in past weeks has raised repeated concerns about ill-discipline in the RSIP and whoever and whenever a new Police Commissioner might assume office the disciplinary issues will not go away overnight and most certainly the concerns expressed regarding unemployment feeding anti-social behaviour and crime will remain.

Can it really be said the country has fully reconciled and the thorny issues of land ownership, tenure and development evaporated, and the answer, as I see it, is NO to all of the points.

Against such a scenario, I recommend the widest possible considerations, public consultation and reforms in the police service before finally committing to even limited re-armament, beyond that of equipping the Close Protection Unit personnel.

Yours sincerely

Frank Short