Dear Editor,

Please allow me to share my thoughts on the idea of recruiting a new Police Commissioner for the Solomon Islands Police Force.

Firstly, it has to be said that the constant changes in the command of the police force is bad for morale, accountability, management, planning, policy and, frankly, the country.

Dissatisfaction amongst the ranks of the senior executive over the possible appointment of an expatriate Commissioner is not new. When I took up the appointment in 1997, all my senior executive officers, including the Deputy Commissioner, the Assistant Commissioner, Operations, and the Assistant Commissioner, CID, had submitted their applications for voluntary retirement hoping for an early payout in the scheme then proposed by the government. When their applications went unanswered (because the government was broke), it proved very difficult to motivate them and it took incentives such as overseas training courses in community policing (which I arranged with the Commissioner of the Singapore Police Force), to get them to move up a gear.

There are some good local officers in the force, officers with long experience, training and knowledge, but I have to question where those officers where when it came to advising the then Commissioner of Police regarding the operational planning and security coverage for the parliamentary election of Synder Rini as Prime Minister. The final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Honiara Riots in 2006 which saw Chinatown burned and looted is yet to be made public, but I am on record as predicting that if standard operational procedures had been followed Chinatown would have been saved.

In July 1997, one of my senior officers quite correctly pointed out that I had only come (to Honiara) with a suitcase. He was referring, of course, to the fact that I had no support package to aid the then under-resourced and run-down police service. The British Government had turned down my request for a review of the force and the representative of the Australian Federal Police had given me the cold shoulder on my first visit (which I had initiated and paid for myself). It was only the Singapore Police that had offered some assistance by way of training and, later, the supply of surplus uniforms.

The Government of the Republic of China (ROC) provided some 3.5 million Solomon dollars worth of vehicles prior to the general election in 1997 and this proved invaluable in providing the operational support for the election and for ongoing police operations, including community policing on Guadalcanal.

Without funding, I resorted to using my personal salary to pay for improvements to buildings and equipment, including improving the physical appearance of police premises and police personnel. In my resignation letter, at the time of refusing a second contract because of the ethnic hostilities that had occurred, I pointed out that no Police Commissioner should have to manage a police service on a shoe-string.

Whoever becomes the next Police Commissioner must be provided with the "tools" to do the job, irrespective of whether the appointee is a local or an expatriate officer. If it is to be an expatriate officer he/she must be fully cognisant of the many cultural differences in working in the Solomons. In a previous letter I wrote I mentioned the "wantok" influences and I said:

"Given that the police must regain its lost image, the support of the public will be vital to the success of the service in dealing with rising levels of crime. As much as it is true that the Solomons Islands Police is hugely under-resourced, I believe that the bulk of crime detection owes little to the investigative skill displayed by detectives, but on the public's ability to provide the police with reliable and straightforward leads. But, it goes further than this, however, and generally requires witnesses to testify in court. Here lies a problem, for just as much as it was virtually impossible to get informants and witnesses to give evidence during the onset of the ethnic conflict for fear of reprisal, I suspect that a persons willingness to testify in open court or, indeed, to give information to the police is still very much a cause for concern today. The ability to obtain evidence and identify suspects is further complicated in the Solomons by the "wantok" culture which seeks to protect those of a similar family and tribal origin, including any form of assistance which will or could benefit the person claiming to be a wantok. Then, to further complicate the situation, there is the culture of "payback" which may occur as a result of some action taken by one party to the detriment of another. Unfortunately, as we witnessed during the ethnic troubles, the payback culture is most significant in the law and order situation, and generally violence is an accompanying factor. Payback therefore still serves to influence people failing to report crime, often serious crime, and to be wary of giving information to the police about criminal activity and the location of wanted persons and property."

It has been encouraging to read of many offenders being brought to justice in the Solomons of late, irrespective of their former positions and status, but the pleas for exemption from the law is an indication of how far justice and equality before the law has to move.

I hope the next Police Commissioner, whoever it is, will be mindful of further advancing the professionalism, integrity and capabilities of the members of the force, and mindful, too, that community policing is the key to working with the unemployed, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged and all the people of the Solomons, rural and urban.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Short