Spotlight on the Police

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Somduth Bhuckory

The members of the Commission appointed to enquire into the Mauritius Police Force have arrived here this week. They are Sir John Nicoll, K.C.M.G., chairman of the Commission, Sir William Johnson, C.M.G. and Mr I.H.E.J Stourton, C.M.G., O.B.E.

It will be remembered that towards the end of August of this year the Secretariat issued a communique to the press informing the public of the appointment of the Commission. The communique also stated the terms of reference of the Commission as follows: “To advise on the manner in which the Mauritius Police Force has adopted itself to meet the problems of the day having regard to local conditions and resources; to consider and report on any improvements that may be required in conditions of service, systems of promotion and training of the Force to enable it more effectively to discharge its responsibilities and for these purposes to invite and examine evidence from the public.”

A subsequent communique, issued by the Secretariat in the second week of October, stated among other things how the Commission desired to collect evidence but it did not mention whether the sittings would be in camera or in public. It contained the appointment of Mr W.H. Garrioch of the Parquet as Secretary of the Commission.

That communique also contains a paragraph which seems to have been added as an afterthought — perhaps because the terms of reference appeared to be a bit narrow. We mean paragraph 6 which runs as follows: “In view of their terms of reference the Commissioners are prepared to receive memoranda, or to hear evidence, on any matters touching upon the discipline or efficiency of the Police Force which would enable them to consider whether any action is necessary in order to maintain or restore public confidence in the Force and to make the necessary recommendations. Such evidence would include if it were put forward evidence against individual officers.”

How to maintain or restore public confidence in the Force, that’s the big problem. The public will be more interested in this aspect of the enquiry, we are certain, than in any other.

* * *

The appointment of this Commission brings naturally to our mind the motion of Hon Bissoondoyal, which was debated upon for four weeks in October 1955. The core of the motion was this: “Owing to the unsatisfactory state of affairs in the Police Department, the appointment of a Royal Commission has now become necessary.” Fifteen elected members were of the opinion that the appointment of such a Commission was necessary but fifteen others — 2 elected, 3 official and 10 nominated thought otherwise and the motions was lost.

The loss of the motion was nothing less than a public calamity. It was with a view to restoring public confidence that we then wrote the following: “Government will surely consider whether the defeat of the motion is enough to whitewash the Police Department or, in their own interest, some kind of enquiry should not be instituted.”

In November of the following year, Hon Bissoondoyal presented the motion again but once more it was not carried. The Council was equally divided — sixteen for and sixteen against it. And so, the Royal Commission did not come and the gravity of the Beau Songes murder case together with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mr Lionnet, among other things, began to recede in the background of people’s mind.

Commissions of enquiry are not appointed to scrutinize an ideal state of affairs and report. They always come in the wake of unrest and dissatisfaction. The terms of reference of the present commission do not allude to any “unsatisfactory state of affairs” but, we think, that between the lines that is exactly what they contain.

People may be unable to prove to the hilt the accusations they level at the Police Department. Their failure to produce unrebuttable evidence against the Police must not be regarded upon as wanton irresponsibility. It must be remembered that it is not easy to establish a charge as in a Court of Law. What is of importance is that when the people accuse the police, they have lost confidence in it and far from looking upon it as a machinery of protection they start assimilating it with powers of oppression and persecution.

* * *

It is the duty of the police to maintain law and order. If it fails in this high endeavour, people are apt to take the law into their own hands.

The police plays a big part in the administration of justice also. If it fails to find the culprit and punish him, confidence will be non-existent. And if for one reason or another it leaves the culprit aside and catches hold of the innocent, the result can but be disastrous.

Let us give a striking example of how the public can lose confidence in the police. Four weeks ago, burglars broke open a restaurant and a tailor’s shop during the night at Montagne Longue. The burglars got in by the front doors which were heavily locked. And the police station of the place is just across the road! The restaurant, we are told, was burgled six months before also. The Commission may try to ascertain first how such a burglary is possible and secondly why the culprits are not found. Does the police want to hush everything up in order not to give publicity to its inability to maintain law and order?

The example given above shows how the police itself can be responsible for sapping public confidence. We shall not go to the length of making wild accusations of bribery and corruption; we shall refrain from asserting that there is a law for the rich and another for the poor; we are loathe to say that class or community has any weight in deciding prosecution; we shall not say why the police prosecute so frequently members of the public for outrage against or assault upon members of the police force — just because we know that substantiating a charge is no easy matter. We should like the Commission, however, to consider these general impressions and clear them up.

* Published in print edition on 17 August 2021

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