DESPITE Cabinet’s approval last September of a Use of Force Policy that police officers need to follow when discharging their duties, the police are yet to receive training in some key areas when dealing with mentally-ill suspects.
The Cabinet Conclusion came about a month after the police shooting of 39-year-old Soufriere resident, Kervin Joseph, during an altercation that ended tragically.
That policy applies to both gazetted and non-gazetted police officers, Special Reserve Police, Special Constables and peace officers and calls on them to adhere to proper practices and behaviour.
Acting Commissioner of Police, Errol Alexander, said last week that despite a team from the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force (RSLPF) engaging the Ministry of Health to create a policy and guidelines in dealing with mentally-ill suspects, the process remains a “work in progress”.
Alexander said the police force is also going through an accreditation process with assistance being received from the Regional Security System (RSS), adding that dealing with the mentally-ill “is very high priority” for police.
Alexander said that while the ideal situation would be that there are no fatalities when police engage mentally-ill suspects, police officers often react instinctively to defend themselves from perceived threats.
“It’s really unfortunate that you’ll get one or two incidents popping up from time to time,” Alexander said. “But the most important thing is that if the police officers use force they need to justify the level of force they use.”
He said he anticipates the Use of Force Policy would stipulate under what circumstances police officers can use certain levels of force, including Level 6 force (use of a firearm), especially when a mentally-ill person needs to be subdued.
Over the years, fatal shootings of mentally-ill suspects by police officers have drawn harsh criticism from family and relatives of those killed. Even human rights activist/attorney, Mary Francis, has repeatedly denounced what she described as excessive use of force by police in those situations.
In a December 10, 2014 interview with The VOICE, Francis, at the time speaking on the observance of Universal Human Rights Day, said.
“The State must provide protection for us by ensuring that the police are trained, to prosecute and get the criminals and so forth. However, the criminal is also entitled to his rights under the Constitution. The Constitution says in the preamble that every person in Saint Lucia is entitled to those rights to life and liberty. It does not say everyone except the criminals. The criminal still remains a person and if we have a Constitution that says what the police must do when apprehending, they must comply. And when they don’t they have to be denounced – not denouncing them per se but their actions.”
However, Alexander said that while the Use of Force Policy for Law Enforcement Officers (Cabinet Conclusion No. 583 of 2015) cites that people’s constitutional and human rights must be recognized by police officers, the police force is hoping to receive formal training in the proper use of lesser levels of force this year. “The use of force policy has opened the way for us to use things like pepper spray, taser guns and so on,” Alexander explained. “So it is now legislated. But, again, we need the training because people will not be able to use these without the respective training. So we’re looking forward in the new year to be able to implement all those lesser levels of force.”