Time is right to review policing fundamentals

Having our policemen and women undergo training to better handle the arresting and interrogation of suspects is a positive development for law enforcement in Samoa. 

As the first step in the criminal justice process, the proper handling of arrests and treatment of criminal suspects is not just an issue of human rights but judicial outcomes. 

Incorrectly followed procedure at this stage of policing often have consequences in court. Defendants in court can make much of mishandled evidence or interview procedures instead of questions of their innocence or guilt. 

And accusations of malpractice and mistreatment are a lingering black mark on the force’s reputation. 

And the implications for basic human rights and due process - around which this week's training is centred - are obvious. 

It was only last December that a Police Officer was found guilty of assaulting a suspect, one who was sent to hospital with extensive injuries and after losing consciousness. (The charges against him were later withdrawn for want of evidence). 

Just as disappointing was the criticism of three other Police Officers, who a Judge found to have had “selective” memories of the incident. 

These episodes are suggestive of a culture within elements of the Samoa Police Service that is not only willing to walk past such treatment of suspects, but to aid and abet it. 

But we applaud this week’s initiative and the training of 25 Officers in arrest and interview procedures as evidence that Police leadership recognises its shortcomings and wants to remedy them.

That is not to suggest the force as a whole should be tarred with this brush. In large and regimented organisations pockets of counter culture can easily develop. 

And cultural change takes a long time to achieve.

Ensuring officers successfully follow proper procedure is a mix of many factors: the legalities and codes officers are bound by should only be seen as one of them. 

No country in the world has a culture of rights so embedded in its national and legal fabric so much as America. And yet allegations of heavy handed and even lethal use of force by officers in that country have been all too regular in recent years.

But so far as international conventions are concerned, Samoa has been lagging behind. 

This week’s training takes its basis fronm the 1985 United Nations Convention Against Torture (U.N.C.A.T.) to which Samoa acceded only in 2019.

Our delay in signing puts us decades behind Syria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. 

That seems unfortunate. But an examination of those countries’ human rights records is also a reminder that endorsing high-minded principles often does not amount to much in reality. 

Samoa has had its own domestic laws covering the kinds of process this week’s workshop is seeking to instill for decades. 

Freedom from violence and the right to due process are embedded in the national Constitution. 

Law enforcement’s powers have been further codified with the Police Powers Act of 2007 and the establishment of a Professional Standards Unit. 

The latter’s remit to investigate complaints of Police mistreatment of members of the public was taken over by the Ombudsman in 2013. 

But we are hopeful that this week's event, which is based around the U.N.C.A.T., will prove fruitful.  

For one thing, ratifying the treaty obliges Samoa to account publicly for its progress before the international community next March.

Most importantly the Police Commissioner, Fuiava’ili’ili Egon Keil, has made clear that he sees raising the conduct of the force to international standard as a part of his reforming mission. 

“This training marks a significant step in our efforts to ensure that all arrested and detained persons are treated in line with U.N.C.A.T. and international standards,” he said on Monday. 

The five days for which our frontline Police Officers will be trained in post-arrest procedures from Fijian counterparts will be invaluable. 

Of course, Fiji’s Police force has hardly itself been free from allegations of engaging in mistreatment and improper procedure.

But perhaps for that very reason, under the imperatives of the Convention it has introduced new measures such as requiring suspects to have access to an attorney within the first hour of their arrest, videotaping interviews and new protocol for interviewing the vulnerable.

These would be excellent additions to our standard policing procedure.

High-minded reforming documents alone rarely produce the results they seek. In some cases, when they provide a false impression that something has been done, they can be worse than doing nothing at all. 

But when they are combined with sincere reforming intent and a workable map to change, they give us hope for a better future. 

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