WEDNESDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER 2013
PHILIPSBURG–It has been one of the main tasks of Police Chief Commissioner Peter de Witte to lead the Police Force of Country St. Maarten towards more professionalization and to create a force that can deliver all elements of police service to St. Maarten by the end of 2014, since he was sworn in as St. Maarten’s new Police Chief Commissioner on June 7, 2010.
The amiable Police Chief is the first to admit that there is still much room for improvement, but looking back on his three years on the job he is “rather satisfied with what has been achieved.”
However, this does not mean De Witte has reason to lean back in his chair at the Philipsburg police station. “There obviously is still much work to do. But changes in professionalism and culture-related issues, for instance, go slowly and step by step,” he said at the start of the interview. “We are often more focussed on the things that do not work, because these obviously get more emphasis.”
Indicating that his job in a small country was not one he should be holding on to for too long, De Witte immediately added that he was still very enthusiastic about his job.
“It is wonderful that I’m allowed to work here. But I also feel that you have to reflect on the future and make sure that there are managers ready to take over.”
De Witte said the introduction of nine community police officers in the various districts was an example of the new approach in which the Police Force is trying to improve its services to the community in a different and more direct way.
“The relation between the police and the community is essential in this,” De Witte said. “Community policing is one of our efforts to improve our relations with citizens and to improve safety and liveability in the districts.”
Plan of Approach
When he was appointed as new Chief Commissioner, De Witte found the Police Force in a state of neglect, not just in manpower, but also in resources and finances. One of the key elements in the “Plan of Approach St. Maarten Police Force” is the immediate increase of manpower. De Witte said capacity was still a point of concern.
“We have made little steps in the appointment of junior officers [formerly BAVPOL auxiliary officers – Ed.] who are working on the streets and in surveillance. This year, we also trained 12 new officers in collaboration with the special entities Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, and there is also room to recruit 21 new trainees.”
All in all, this concerns some 50 new officers, which is a firm step in the direction of the ambitions set out in the Plan of Approach. In 2011, the Police Force consisted of 185 people. Currently, there are 254 persons working with the police. It is the intention to have a Police Force of 389 in 2017.
“Unfortunately we still have to make an appeal to the loyalty of our officers in order to carry out all our duties as well as possible,” De Witte said.
Being a tourist destination, St. Maarten hosts a number of big events, such as the Heineken Regatta and Carnival, which require deployment of numerous officers. Also, the visit of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima in November will require a broad range of police services. These services are provided while regular police duties continue. This is no small task, because, for example, some 100 police officers are involved with the Regatta alone.
The increased numbers of solved violent crimes, among them the so-called Regatta murders and the Vesuvius case in 2011, as well as the violent murder and robbery of U.S. residents Michael and Thelma King in September 2012, fill the Police Chief Commissioner with pride.
“Considering the crime rate, St. Maarten should be very proud of its Police Force,” De Witte said. “And as chief of this organisation I am very proud of the people who worked closely together in achieving these results. It was a major accomplishment of our organisation to manage to put the perpetrators of the Regatta murders behind bars. Internationally, we gave out a very good signal with the arrest of Kings’ murder suspects within 14 days.
“St. Maarten is a tourist destination and when you make mistakes the island will be over-run by reporters in no time. The Natalee Holloway case in Aruba has shown where that may lead to and what it can do to your country,” De Witte said.
“There was a spiral of violence with the Vesuvius case involving crimes of life, murders and liquidations. The murder rate has declined considerably after the persons responsible went behind bars.”
De Witte not only noted a decline in murders and manslaughters, but also in burglaries and robberies.
A new uniform and police badge may not be as eye-catching, but are of equal importance to create a Police Force identity, De Witte underlined, in mentioning one of the other police “achievements.” An online hook-up with the public registry’s files at the Census Office is high on the police’s wish list, De Witte mentioned.
The Police Force of St. Maarten was the first and up until now only government entity monitored by an external visitation committee on fulfilment of the conditions as laid out in the Plan of Approach. The committee published its findings on, for instance, basic police care, criminal investigations and police management, on June 17.
De Witte was happy with the committee’s findings, especially where it concerned public trust in the police. “Legitimacy was an important subject in the report,” De Witte explained. “It was extremely positive for us to read in the report that trust in our Force has increased.”
Increased trust may also be reflected by an increased willingness among the public to provide the police with information about crimes.
“People often provide information to an officer they’re acquainted with and whom they trust. We also have the Criminal Information Service CID which may provide witness protection, and an anonymous tip line, but this tip line is not very productive in every case,” De Witte said.
The Police Chief Commissioner stressed that complaints concerning alleged police brutality were handled with more openness and transparency than previously by the Internal Affairs Bureau.
In case brutality is proven this may lead to disciplinary measures against the officers involved, De Witte said, but investigations also may lead to the conclusion that the complaint was unfounded.
Police strategy advisor Henk van Straten, who also sat in on the interview, added that the police were monitored by several entities, among them the Ombudsman and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT).
He said that CPT, which not only monitors the conditions in the prison, but also at the police station, had stated in its last report that it had not received any complaints of police brutality in St. Maarten.
It may be challenging to reach certain goals in the Plan of Approach by 2017, De Witte said. These include housing, training and capacity. “Those are the three spearheads and biggest challenges.”
The Law Enforcement Council made a large number of audits, which resulted in “good recommendations” for the police that will be used in finalising the Plan of Approach.
De Witte said integrity also was an important theme within the Police Force.
Law and order
The Police Chief said Minister of Justice Dennis Richardson had launched an Action Plan for his Ministry at the start of the new parliamentary year last week, in which restoration of law and order was one of the main elements.
De Witte said traffic violations will be receiving special attention in this context, although even now the number of fines issued for traffic violations is already going up.
“Legislation needs to be adapted here and there, and a parking policy, including a good regulation for car towing with an official impound, needs to be drafted,” De Witte pointed out as requirements for an effective traffic policy.
He also mentioned the outdated law on alcohol-related traffic violations, which is in dire need of modernisation. Minister Richardson is to include this in the legislation process with due diligence, as De Witte put it.
He said the police had a good relationship with the Minister. “He is a politician who is leading on the main lines and wants to see results.
Source: The Daily Herald, St. Maarten