Carlos Perdomo, Permanent Secretary of the
Ministry of National Security; the Honourable
Dean Barrow, Minister of National Security, and
Commissioner of Police Sherman Zuniga
The visit to San Pedro was part of a national tour of towns and villages in which the Minister of National Security and his staff are meeting with the men and women of the police force to boost their morale and inform them of upcoming plans for police welfare as well as to meet with citizens in the communities.
In his opening remarks, Minister Barrow told the standing room only gathering at the Town Hall, "Our purpose is to hear from you. In the past there was an excellent relationship between police and the community - it has been suggested that the relationship is in need of some repair. We are here to hear how to accomplish that repair. Several things have helped in the past. The formation of a Crime Committee in which citizens got involved and some became Special Constables. Minister Young has been the point man for San Pedro in the National Government. He has his own ideas about the deterioration of the relationship between the police and the community. In order to move forward, we must examine what happened in the past. I ask you to enter into this spirit of cooperation and not finger point."
Bill Wilkinson, a hotelier in the audience spoke up. "I have been here for 9 years, as a citizen for the past 3 years. I live in Boca del Rio and it's pretty nice as far as crime. I should say lack of crime. I have gotten to know the P.C.'s and the Inspector personally. My situation has been good." Barrow remarked, "That was nice to hear, but there are problems. I get calls and I get called out here to address them."
Bruce Collins suggested that one of the problems has to do with transportation. "The police have no vehicles. The Crime Committee has solicited contributions and given scooters, golf carts and a truck. Due to poor maintenance none of those vehicles are in operation. San Pedro contributes a great deal to the country. How about sending one of those new Explorers and someone to maintain it to San Pedro?"
Barrow responded that one million dollars had been spent on the Explorer vehicles - but there were not enough to go around. He said that the police force also says there is a need for a vehicle. "Can we get back to having an aggressive Crime Committee who raise funds? Can the Crime Committee give a report?" Vice Chairman of the Crime Committee Dr. Wil Lala said that Ramon Nuņez, the chairman, was out of town. Dr. Lala was prepared to give the report. He showed several lists of former members of the Crime Committee and commented that too many things that were donated were broken or went missing. He mentioned problems of officers drinking while in uniform and not responding to calls. Minister Barrow asked if a meeting could be convened with members of the Crime Committee. He said they had tried to set up such a meeting in each town and district they had visited - "That type of body can go a long way in clearing up problems. We need a forum where grievances of the community can be addressed in addition to praise for good achievement. Not to short circuit this meeting, but we need to create a new committee; we need to talk on a continuing basis - not just to apportion blame. We are very big on accountability. We tried to put in safeguards with the new vehicles. We got spare parts, maintenance training, etc. still we have an unacceptable rate of accidents."
Kevin Gonzalez suggested that a new committee be set up, and that he would oversee its formation and see that it got back on its feet.
Marie Parham mentioned that people on the committee worked in the police station, then the police cut them back saying the volunteers didn't work out. It was explained that there was a need to be careful with police business and not to let volunteers get pushy.
Charles Payne suggested that maybe a citizen's complaint committee be formed. He was reminded that the reason for a committee was to assist the police - not to investigate the police.
Ernesto Caliz commented that the Crime Committee crumbled, the Civilian Constables crumbled, that they wouldn't stand up and support the police. "We are a family here, we all get along and respect each other. The police go in the streets and do whatever they want. Drive drinking where ever they want. They tell us to shut up. Our rights have been violated. They beat people up and send them home."
Minister Young responded to Mr. Caliz's statements saying, "He has touched on some of the reasons why the police's relationship with the community has broken down. This is hurting everybody. Government will never be able to support enough police. Because San Pedro is a tourist destination, it needs to be safe. After the Ann Reilly incident, everyone came together. But because we have had only petty crimes, we are not together. The message is clear - you perform or you will be removed. As Minister of Tourism I need to make sure no major incident takes place. You all need to rise to the occasion. Make a commitment." Minister Barrow reinforced Young's sentiments and added, "if the police behave in a fashion that makes them appear to be lawless, as Minister of National Security I have made it clear that the police have to learn to make a distinction between hardened criminals and ordinary citizens who from time to time come into trouble with the law. The function of punishment is reserved for the courts. When someone is arrested for a minor offence I will not countenance that person being incarcerated nor relatives being told they cannot get information, or a police officer who says, 'I don't have to tell you anything.'" He responded to Mr. Caliz's recounting of incidents as "colourful" but not invented. "The question of civil behavior/courtesy is a fundamental requirement. Our primary goal will be to improve relations with the public. Serious nature crimes will be dealt with differently. They will be detained until they appear before a magistrate. I don't feel Inspector Hulett should have to defend himself and his men about the past."
San Pedro's Mayor, Manuel Heredia Jr., responded to Minister Barrow's remarks regarding the police not having to defend their past performance. "We (the Town Board) have always pledged support to the police and to their comfort so they could perform to the best of their ability. I am very displeased. I cannot get the cooperation of the officers about their behavior. I have made several complaints and have been assured they would be disciplined. A few weeks later it's the same thing. They need to stop brutalizing people - no charges are filed. We need to make sure in the future that we can work together and see results and then we will be putting our dollars to help. When Inspector Hulett is away prosecuting cases, something happens. There is no strong person left in charge. The police have no respect for the second in command."
Minister Barrow said that he could ensure that the officer in charge had back up. "We are not just saying this, we have been acting. In the last couple of months some have been dismissed. The Corozal Committee sent a report. We investigated - 3 or 4 were disciplined. The message must be carefully couched. Policing is more dangerous, we don't need to go into the reasons why - we have to be careful that the police are respected by their high command and citizens. We must steer this middle course. If you're found guilty we are going to discipline. I encourage you to log complaints and submit them to us. We must be careful about 3rd party complaints - why don't they report directly to the police?"
Wil Lala reminded the audience that the Crime Committee was started by a few hoteliers to protect tourism. The police had a broken scooter, needed flashlights and radios. The special constables came out of the Crime Committee and that weakened the committee. He said the committee needed to start anew and suggested that bingo games be held at the Lions to raise funds. He said it would take a big commitment from people to volunteer to man the games.
Ernesto Caliz spoke again saying he was not complaining about the police, he wanted respect.
George Parham said, "Hulett has done a marvelous job - he lives in a shack, doesn't have transportation, doesn't have a boat. The police here have to leave their homes, pay high costs. We haven't done enough. I want to thank Hulett."
Daniel Guerrero, president of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association asked for assistance in enforcing the new tour guide legislation requiring all guides be licensed.
Minister Barrow responded that with limited resources, it was practically impossible for the police to enforce the tour guide law. He referred to the "No Wake Zone" law saying that no one examined the resources of the police department before enacting the said law. The additional duties cannot be performed. Guerrero asked if the rangers at Hol Chan Marine Reserve could act on the law as they come into contact with the tour guides. Guerrero and others encouraged the Minister to enforce the law at least once a month. They cited the three citations for violating the "No Wake Zone" and that people observe and obey after citations are issued.
Several personal matter with the police were mentioned. The citizens were advised to present the problems to Inspector Derrick Staines in Belize City who will investigate the matters.
Minister Barrow closed the meeting by asking for a date to be set for a new Crime Committee to meet and be formed. He said Inspector Zetina would be present for the initial meeting. It was suggested that a new name be given to the committee - perhaps the "Anti-Crime Committee." The date for the new committee to meet is Tuesday, September 24, 1996 at 7:00 p.m. at the Town Hall.