Salisbury's riots and the militarisation of the Police Force
The violent confrontation between the Commonwealth of Dominica Police Force and the people of Salisbury on May 11th and June 11th 2105 has left a few disturbing matters in its wake.
One issue is very clear. There has been a definite escalation of the militarisation of the police service in Dominica. Over the past few months, in particular since the 2014 general election, we have seen the police using tactics and equipment deployed by military forces in faraway places such as Bagdad and Afghanistan. Our police force has changed significantly over the past few years.
In our view the Dominica Police Force is now adopting new policing practice from the United States and elsewhere. Providing a scholarly analysis of that trend is Criminal Justice Professor Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University. He has described militarisation of the police as "the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from and pattern themselves around the tenets of militarism and the military model."
In an article entitled: "Community Policing in Battle Garb" Kraska and co-author DeMichele discuss the emergence of policing that runs counter to the idea of community policing. The authors describe the police's use of aggressive tactics, frequently described as "zero tolerance", which effectively denigrates the traditional image of the cordial, genial police officer that has been built along the principle that the police's major function is to prevent crime and disorder and that the police's ability to fulfil this function is dependent on public's tacit approval of their actions and behaviour.
Many observers have noted the increasing militarisation of the police force, especially operatives in the press. These journalists contend that this disturbing trend has been noted by organisations right across the political spectrum, from the left of centre American Civil Liberties Union and the right-of-centre CATO Institute. In an article in the US News and World Report entitled "Fergusson and the Militarisation of the Police", Paul D. Shinman, quoting a 27 year veteran of the Boston Police Department, said: "This besieged mentality created by the militarization of police has driven a pernicious wedge into the significant gains made under community- and problem-oriented policing initiatives dating from the late 1980s."
Added Glen Greenwald of The Intercept in an article entitled "The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged into the Light by the Horrors of Ferguson": "The harrowing events of the last week in Ferguson, Missouri – the fatal police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager, Mike Brown, and the blatantly excessive and thuggish response to ensuing community protests from a police force that resembles an occupying army – have shocked the U.S. media class and millions of Americans. But none of this is aberrational."
We argue that Dominicans have come to a similar conclusion in the aftermath of the recent disturbances in Salisbury where we witnessed Dominica's own version of the militarisation of its Police Force. In Salisbury we experienced the extensive, excessive and frightening use of tear gas and the firing of live bullets to displace a group of villagers who had blocked a main road ostensibly to draw attention to the deplorable state of agricultural roads in the area.
In our view it is absolutely difficult for the police, or any military force for that matter, to justify the use of tear gas and bullets within a village where senior citizens, disabled persons and infants reside. What is also disturbing is that with the exception of the political opposition no organisation or institution has condemned that unprecedented use of that level of aggression within a village. Our people are indeed blinded by politics.
Residents of Salisbury are convinced that they are being unfairly punished by the police because of their alignment to the opposition United Workers Party. While the residents say that when they protested on May 11th and June 11th they were exercising their constitutional rights to assemble, the police argue that the protestors had violated the law and so the officers have subsequently charged six persons with offences related to the Riot Act.
To the residents of Salisbury, the police have acted unfairly by selecting the village to demonstrate their "zero tolerance" to protesting by blocking roads. They may be right. Over the past few years there have been numerous instances where the police have turned a blind eye to the practice of blocking roads to draw attention to various grievances.
Recall that there were similar events over the past few years in the Kalinago Territory, Calibishie, Layou, Anse de Mai, Stockfarm and Coulibistrie where protestors blocked roads.
A few days after the Anse de Mai protests, the residents of Yampiece near Goodwill also blocked roads in their community. This time the people were unhappy with the deep pot holes in the roads of the area. Government promised to alleviate their problems but the police, fearing that protests were mushrooming out of control, threatened other copy-cat communities with arrests and prosecution.
But it appeared that the people of Coulibistrie were not frightened by threats of jail time. A few days after the police made the threats, the people of that community also blocked the main highway from Portsmouth. They were apparently dissatisfied with plans by an American investor to begin quarrying operations in the village. This time the Special Security Unit of the police service was out in full force; the protest action was curtailed and a few protesters were arrested. We are not sure what came out of these arrests but it is obvious that in all these cases the police were reluctant to use brute force. So, why Salisbury now?
Dominicans can learn many lessons from the events in Salisbury. Hence we suggest the appointment of an independent commission to examine the cause and effect of the disturbances. That is one way of satisfying the nation's need for answers to the many questions arising out of these two days of madness in Salisbury.