Part 9: The Police Force I Joined.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force had its roots as a colonial police force during the time of the former British Protectorate of the Solomon Islands.
Its members were organized mainly with a view to suppressing crimes of violence and mass outbreaks against the peace within the Islands.
The Island police had over time successfully combined standard police work with para military activity; going back to the ‘Masina Ruru,’ a locally formed nationalist movement, which surfaced in the American Labour Camps during the occupation of Guadalcanal in the Second World War, circa 1942.
In fact the roots of ‘Masina Ruru’ were believed to go back even further in time. The more recent elements developed the ‘Cargo Cult’ belief – Americans would be returning with ships loaded with cargo that would then be given free to members of the movement.
Incentive, sales talk, or real belief – take your choice.
The movement was successfully put down, but it did focus the then current administration’s attention to the needs of the local people.
Local Councils were set up in 1952 with the original aim of handling in a positive manner, the needs of the community: time and people passed by…likewise governments also.
The Councils faded and disappeared into obscurity along with their effectiveness – out of sight – out of mind, comes to mind.
Add the later years' economic downturn, as well as the Mamaloni government's financial mis-management, incurring staggering debts and the air was rife for political change.
It could be said by mid 1997 the lid of the people’s cooking pot began to quiver, as the rising genetics inside moved closer to boiling point and the general election loomed.
One needs to look at a map of the south Pacific, and understand the overall geography of the Solomon Islands before drawing conclusions about area Governance:
There are about 992 islands – yes…that many… covering approximately 28,500 sq. km within a total sea area of 1,600,000 sq km.
Add the fact that the islands are a mixture of volcanic and atoll construction which means -- dense rain forests; active volcanoes; tropical monsoons; cyclones, wind, fog, other assorted conditions – and salt water -- all related to being a series of outcroppings in the gigantic Pacific ocean.
On the islands are nine administrative provinces, with close to 87 different languages spoken; along with their dialects. The overall predominantly used language is Pijin.
Although not all of the 992 islands and atolls are populated, the operational mandate of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force is as can be visualized – huge.
One cannot just hop in a vehicle; drive to an afflicted area; demonstrate the Solomon’s sovereignty.
The remoteness of many of the islands and the large expanse of ocean calls for adequate police numbers and capabilities. For effective surveillance and control measures, ocean viable fast boats and or aircraft, along with their support facilities, including both sea and land communications are essential.
This effectiveness of course needs feeding – money!
Unfortunately without the means to reach the scattered Islands, and any other coastal communities by sea; or to travel hinterland by vehicle quickly, incidents that were instant crimes become events of history by the time the police were informed and finally arrived.
By this time all parties to the incident had dispersed, decided on their own particular action, or brushed it off and conveniently forgotten what happened.
Real insurgency gets encouraged by this type of response and starts to grow by gathering adherents. No legal reaction to criminal action usually allows dissidents of all kinds to grow their own autonomy.
Today, the estimated population of the Solomon Islands is close to 600,000, but in 1997 the population figure was quoted at around 450,000, with an authorized police establishment below 1000 and a deficiency in the ranks of about 250 members when I arrived.
In addition, there was a strict moratorium on recruitment because of the state of the government’s finances.
The scope of the police task and the inadequacies within the ranks were plain for all to see, but there was much, much more, I was soon to discover.
Part 10: The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force Structure
We were supposed to have 999 personnel as the authorized number of working, trained, police officers. In fact we were closer to 750 due to natural wastage and the moratorium on recruitment mentioned previously.
The largest section was the National Reconnaissance and Surveillance Force (NRSF), a unit born from the old legacy of the Royal Solomon Islands police force being established as also the Islands defence force.
The Mamaloni Government had created the NRSF at the height of the Bougainville crisis transferring personnel from the Police Field Force and tasking them with responsibilities for border patrol, offshore surveillance, remote area policing and reinforcement of general duties police in large or serious operations.
The NRSF had been the most active in the northern Shortland Islands, located east of Papua New Guinea, where border incursions by Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNG) troops had caused several and serious Solomon Island casualties.
The members of the NRSF had very little training in general police duties; they were essentially, infantrymen: organized on military lines into platoons, wore military style camouflage uniforms, and issued with a range of standard type military issue weaponry.
They were, by virtue of their training and mindset – army. Here we need to understand what is a normal Law and Order establishment in many countries.
Internal security has three basic platforms:
- The first platform is the standard daily police operation; where close community relations with the populace are desired. Indeed essential.
- The second platform is the para military force; used only when there are disturbances beyond what the local police can handle. Or as patrol units where there are none or minimal standard police units. Then their duty is more of a PR type presence, supporting local chiefs and showing the government flag.
- The third platform is the army where large portions of the populace, for whatever reason are being disorderly on a large scale.
Here in the Solomon Islands we have an additional level added by the traditional village chiefs who can supplement police initial responses and provide warning of insurgency pressures. However that does not apply to heavily populated, multi ethnic, areas like Honiara.
People tend to misunderstand what para military really means and does.
It is a step up from standard police work to where a police officer learns training in crowd control and the use of a long baton, shield and tear gas; operating from what the old European Vikings used to call ‘Skjaldborg,’ meaning shield wall.
This is an excellent method of the use of non-lethal arms to deal with public order disturbances: especially in Islands where the people are by temperament, mainly good natured, and in general non-violent and can stop small disturbances from escalating.
The alternative is to use military deployment in public order policing which could involve the use of firearms, because you cannot allow the ‘disturbance’ to close with you, as then your rifle becomes a rather unwieldy baton which can be taken from you and its contents used against you – a harmful and politically dangerous situation.
Do you really want to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly?
Or to generate such unnecessary public dislike for the uniform that the standard basic structure of Law and Order is affected on a daily working level?
There were hidden problems beyond the public eye involving logistics. The NRSF had military style rotational duties at the border. This meant that they had to re-equip before any riot action.
A mindset adjustment was also needed as they had to think more ‘shield wall,’ rather than gun pointing.
I was not comfortable with this series of situations and it was why I created a Rapid Response Unit (RRU) that was hand-picked, small, efficient and well trained for the specific job of policing small public order disturbances.
More on the RRU to follow in a later column.
A twist here was the fact that the NRSF operations were largely financed and supported, particularly in regard to training, by Australia – yet there it stopped…
It was also a reminder of how close Australia was physically, if not politically at that point in time.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially in the light of what was to occur within 18 months of my appointment. Now history…
The reports of a growing humanitarian crisis on Guadalcanal were there for all to see.
Moreover, in the light of an intelligence report which I presented to Australian government representatives and briefings I gave to New Zealand government officials during the early months of 1999, it is my opinion the two regional governments could have helped to end the militancy and the intensifying humanitarian situation there and then, if only they had pondered less “the right to intervene” and considered more the “responsibility to protect.”
The attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and the first Bali bombing in October 2002, in which 88 Australians tragically lost their lives, changed our neighbours' strategic thinking, but much more of the issue involving 'intervention' and a renewed approach to it, particularly by Australia, will follow in later chapters.
I was hired for my knowledge of policing and police experience but neither regional power seemed to want to pay attention to what I had to say, which was: to correctly forecast what would happen from the unfolding crisis.
Regrettably, while Australia declined to intervene, the nation shook: the unrest led to the consequential political, social and economic collapse of the Solomon Islands, to say nothing of the tragic loss of life on both sides of the ethnic conflict.
This is not sour grapes on my part, simply born out by later events that had been accurately predicted and timelessly reported to both regional governments.
The next largest component of the force was the uniformed branch.
However, due to the structural size and geography of the Islands together with the diversity of the population centers, de-centralization had always been an unfortunate necessity; with the result that the majority were localized around the main centre of Honiara and others were posted throughout the provincial territories.
Our specialized units like the Criminal Investigation Department, (CID) and the Special Branch (SB) had main offices in Rove, Honiara. Some plain clothes officers from both branches were also posted throughout the islands.
We also had about forty women police officers, who were mainly employed on administrative duties, including handling the essential communications equipment.
They operated out of the Headquarters office building and Honiara Central Police Station.
There was also a small Marine Unit which was responsible for manning the Australian donated patrol boats. Here there was a problem.
They considered themselves an elite unit that objected to being seen as marine police officers, serving together with the NRSF, but preferring to retain their more traditional naval insignia.
Pride in one’s unit is fine – to a degree. However, the bottom line was they were police officers first and sailors second.
We were also responsible for the Fire Brigade in Honiara and Auki. This also extended to Henderson Field where we had some forty officers and firemen, doing both duties.
We had a small Civilian Volunteer police force at the time, known as Special Constables, who assisted occasionally with operational duties, usually when special events occurred such as major football matches, Queen’s Birthday Parade, or the Anniversary Parade marking Independence Day each year.
Their initial numbers were small and their police training and experience was minimal.
Part 11: The Command Structure
The Command Structure was : a Deputy Commissioner as my deputy, with Assistant Commissioners responsible for admin, crime operations, NRSF.
Another Assistant Commissioner commanded the Honiara police separately. Chief Superintendents commanded the Police Academy, the Fire Brigade, the CID, SB and Traffic. The senior female officer ranked as Chief Inspector.
The structure also allowed for an establishment of other ACP’s in the larger provincial commands including Guadalcanal and provincial areas of Auki and Gizo.
At the time of my arrival the provincial command positions were occupied by Chief Superintendents.
This structure had by now gone down its own path, due to a mixture of politics and situational requirements.
The whole organization was overwhelmed with senior ranks, uncoordinated to a large extent and having a confusing mix of duties.
It was like a tree – when planted it grew fine for the first few years then got out of hand as no one trimmed it.
However, the most serious drain on personnel and finance was the rotational deployment of the NRSF on permanent border protection duties. One could say they were the roots of the tree.
Considering we were well below authorized establishment to start with, this was a heavy burden on manpower.
The Honiara uniform officers had to deal with petty theft, assaults, incidence of drunkenness, housebreaking and traffic accidents.
Much of the crime and road offences were associated with high unemployment, urban drift, lack of housing, alcoholism and the influx of second hand motor vehicles that poured in from Asia, to run on inadequate, poorly maintained roads.
There was yet another problem concerning the police executive which I soon discovered within days of assuming office.
I had mentioned earlier that the Mamaloni Government had talked of structural reform in order to moderate spending to aid the ailing economy.
A down-sizing of the civil service, including the police, had been proposed some weeks before with the suggestion of redundancy packages on offer to those willing to retire.
When my appointment became known, my entire senior executive officers, including the Deputy Commissioner, all of whom had individually bid for the top job, decided to apply for redundancy and at my first meeting with them they made their position clear telling me they were only waiting their “packages” before leaving the force.
In the event, the Mamoloni Government lost the election and the incoming administration shelved the previously announced redundancy plans.
My job became all the more difficult, however, knowing they harboured some grudge against my appointment.
It took the promise of overseas attachments in community policing to motive them, but also a good deal of hard work on my part to encourage their support.
To be continued …