Page last updated at 00:16 GMT, Saturday, 24 May 2008 01:16 UK

Canada police in Caribbean job row

By Jude Sheerin
BBC News

The honeymooners' paradise has seen a big jump in the murder rate
When former Canadian police officer Gary Nelson arrived in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda to take over as commissioner of constabulary, he packed plenty of warm weather wear.

But despite the sultry tropical heat, his initial reception was as frosty as the winter temperatures back in his home of Ottawa.

Mr Nelson soon found himself at the centre of a political storm every bit as turbulent as the hurricanes that occasionally batter the islands.

The 58-year-old and three other former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in March began a two-year stint reforming the Royal Antigua Police Force.

Plagued by incompetence, allegations of corruption and low morale, the Antigua constabulary proved unable to stem a rising crime rate.

'White rule again'

But the Canadians appointed to turn the force around, have found themselves plunged into a jobs-for-locals row in the former British colony, which won independence 27 years ago.

St John's, Antigua and Barbuda
These people have taken over the rule of law in this country. This patently and optically has colonial manifestations
Lester Bird
Ex-Prime Minister

They are not the only Canadians in the English-speaking Caribbean; the region's three largest banks - with a reported $42bn in assets - are Canadian-controlled.

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Lester Bird says he views the police chief appointments with "abhorrence" and plans to remove them if re-elected in the next elections due by March 2009.

The former Mounties were hired after Antiguan Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer's government ordered an official inquiry into the constabulary.

With most British police training resources deployed in other parts of the Caribbean, Antigua sought expertise elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

They asked an ex-RCMP assistant commissioner to head the review.

He recommended sweeping changes that resulted in several local constabulary chiefs - including the country's first woman commissioner - leaving their jobs and the ex-Mounties being appointed.

When the newcomers began work, the scale of their task quickly became apparent, says Mr Nelson.

On his first day at work, he found police HQ in Antigua's capital, St John's, had been without running water for 18 months because of a minor plumbing fault.

The force had no functioning fax machines, no email or two-way radio and officers frequently did not respond to call-outs as the 550-stong force only has 45 patrol cars in its fleet.

If they did leave the station their colleagues could not contact them.

Mr Nelson - who retired as superintendent three years ago after 37 years on the beat from Saskatchewan to Ottawa - said: "When we arrived, everyone was like: 'We're going back to colonial days, it's white rule again.'

Commissioner Gary Nelson talks with an Antiguan police corporal
Commissioner Gary Nelson (left) says his officers are up to the challenge

"But we're here to focus on the job in hand. We have a lot of work to do. Morale in the force has been extremely low.

"Police relationship with the community was very cold and deeply mistrustful. But now there's hope.

"I'm so proud - one of my officers, on his day off recently, used his own car to conduct surveillance on a suspected armed robber and arrested him."

In addition to delivering a well-trained, professional and efficient force, the new police chiefs must also identify and groom a new cadre of officers to take up the mantle when they leave in 2010.

But perhaps their biggest challenge will be restoring public faith in the police. Last year there were 19 murders on the island - a big jump for a nation of some 83,000 people that used to see about seven killings a year.

'Culturally insensitive'

Prosecution levels have been low because police evidence-gathering skills were so poor any cases that did make it to court often ended up being thrown out.

Also cluttering Mr Nelson's in-tray is a manhunt for a suspected serial rapist linked to 40 attacks on the island in the last 15 months.

Deputy Commissioner Thomas Bennett (L) and Assistant Commissioner Ronald Scott
The Canadians are focusing on high visibility community policing

Mickel Brann, editor of Antigua's Daily Observer, said despite some initial disquiet over the police shake-up most islanders are prepared to embrace anyone who can cut crime.

"There was a perception for some it was culturally insensitive to appoint white people in a predominantly black country when we are still searching for identity," she said.

"Not since colonial days has the head of police been a white person. But the general view is anyone who can get a handle on the crime situation is welcome. People just want results."

The new commissioner and his fellow Canadians - Deputy Commissioners Thomas Bennett and Michael O'Neil and Assistant Commissioner Ronald Scott - began by setting up units to investigate homicide, burglary and sexual assault.

The new high command has also focused on high visibility community policing, a move they believe is already paying dividends, and instilling in the rank-and-file a sense of pride in their badge.

'Race card'

While the general public's response appears to have been broadly positive so far, not everyone is a fan of the new regime.

Antigua Labour Party leader Lester Bird said he plans to make a manifesto commitment of removing the foreigners at the next elections.

"[Their appointment] goes against the grain of our sovereignty," he said. "We have competent indigenous people who can do these jobs.

"These people have taken over the rule of law in this country. That can't be acceptable.

"This patently and optically has colonial manifestations. This clearly shows the prime minister thinks we are incompetent and unable to look after our own country."

Deputy Commissioner Michael O'Neil inspects the force's bike fleet
The ex-Mounties' ability to deliver may be a factor in next year's election

But Mr Bird - who was the island's prime minister for a decade until 2004 - accepts radical measures are needed to address the crime epidemic.

"There has been a tremendous exponential increase in crime in the last several years," he said. "We used to be a tranquil tourist destination."

Antigua's Justice Minister Colin Derrick, however, said the government was colour-blind when it came to making the streets safe.

"We are concerned with competence, not skin colour," said Senator Derrick.

"They [the opposition] are trying to play the race card but most people are not in favour of the noise they are making."

Country profile: Antigua and Barbuda
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Canada
26 Feb 08 |  Country profiles


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