16 Nov “Makaga.” This is NOT who we are.

My late uncle, Max Wendt, was a policeman all his life. I grew up used to his familiar blue-uniformed presence. Sometimes, when kids would bully me at primary school, I would use his name in vain, “I’m gonna tell my uncle on you. He’s a police and he’s gonna come arrest you!” Of course I never did. And of course he wouldn’t have. (And looking back now, I suspect my fia-police-power threats made kids pick on me even more.)

One day, when I was a young graduate, starting my first job, a policeman stopped me in town on the pretence that I hadn’t ‘parked properly’ – and then proceeded to ask me many questions ’Are you married? Who’s your husband? Does he know you are driving his car? Are you a good girl?’ He then gave me a ticket and his phone number, telling me that I needed to come find him or else he would make sure I got locked up.

Excuse me?!

My Dad took me to see his brother. Uncle Max shook his head with a frown, “Oka se makaga.” He told me not to worry, he would fix it, because “good police should not behave like that.” I left the station that day, confident in the knowledge that it would be okay, because ‘good police don’t act like that.’

I was fortunate to grow up with that kind of relationship with a Samoa police officer. And yes, I’m mindful that not everyone in Samoa (or in the world) has that kind of experience with police. It was a privileged position to be in. It meant that I always viewed our police as protectors, as helpers and as being there to right wrongs.

I do want that for my children though. To respect police and be able to trust them as community helpers.

Which is why this whole debacle with the Police Commissioner makes me sad. To cite the words of that elderly man at the police station yesterday, “ou te faanoanoa tele”.

Obviously there are some in the police force who aren’t happy with the Commissioner’s leadership. Is it because he was brought in to ‘clean up’ the police department – and some don’t like getting straightened out? Did he have the right approach to leading change? I do know he was charged with all sorts of things – and then those charges were dropped. That process took three months. In that time, he was on paid leave. Police reforms were put on hold. Many thousands of tax payer dollars spent.

I’ve never met the man so I don’t know if he’s a ‘good police’ or not.

What I do know, is that what happened yesterday at the police station when he went in to work – was NOT ‘good police’ in action. He was abruptly detained, without any formal charges being laid against him. Not for several hours anyway. As he protested, he was manhandled, his police uniform shirt removed as well as his personal belongings – and then placed in a cell. When his Constable driver tried to intervene, because he didn’t think their treatment of the Commissioner was right – he was assaulted by several police officers, and then locked in a cell. When members of the Australian Federal Police advisory team tried to question what was going on – they were shoved and told to leave or else they would get locked up too. Members of the public who heard it all, were worried there would be a riot of some kind. Our journalist, was getting frantic messages from people worried about her safety because, “It’s not safe down there. We don’t know who’s in charge. Y’know they’ve got control of the Armoury…”

The whole thing was unreal. It had an air of the ridiculous even. Because this is Samoa. And things like this aren’t supposed to happen here. We aren’t supposed to worry about police seemingly defying Cabinet directives for a Commissioner to be reinstated… police refusing to accept a court decision to clear a man of all charges and so they take the weekend to come up with a long list of NEW charges…all of which were not approved by the NPO or the Attorney General…police beating up other police and locking them in cells…police engaging in behaviour that looked a lot like a takeover…

Like many of you, I was in disbelief at all of it.

Not only that, what happened to fa’aaloalo? Basic respect for one’s Senior leader? You don’t like him? You think he’s broken laws?  Fine, then you follow proper legal processes. There’s a system in place for a reason. You don’t jump him on his first day back at work, take his ofu and throw him in a jail cell. It was wrong. It was makaga. It was very “un-Samoan”. It was NOT the way to address your grievances.

This is not who we are.

The Assistant Commissioner Samoa Mulinuu Mulinuu put the responsibility square on the Minister of Police. If that’s true, then that’s even worse. Since when are Cabinet Ministers allowed to have people arrested? This is sounding more and more like another Pacific country that #ShallNotBeNamed. Do we all need to be worried?

The all-day emergency Cabinet meeting, called in response to the renegade police action, finally resulted in a decision to suspend the Commissioner. Again.

No, I’m not reassured by the government press release that ‘this is a peaceful country’ and ‘the community has nothing to be worried about.’ Because it sure sounds like there’s a  few police who are out to get what they want – no matter what. And like there’s some frantic damage control happening to try and prettify what really went down at the Apia police station on Monday.

Yesterday, Cabinet then suspended Samoa Mulinuu Mulinuu, “pending charges unrelated” to the Commissioner’s sudden arrest. Really? Sure seems coincidental though.

The truly sad thing here is the actions of a determined few are ruining it for ‘good police’ everywhere. There’s so many police officers working hard to make our community safer and better for all of us.

I have reason to be personally thankful for them. From police standing out in the pouring rain and scalding sun making sure our children cross the road safely, to those who provide police escorts to ensure my husband (and other athletes like him) are safe when they’re running in a sports events. Police who were so helpful and efficient when my car got smashed into by a careless driver last year, to those who successfully arrested drug dealers working on our street.  And even those who visited my daughter’s school this year and gave such an awesome presentation on police work that she came home excited about everything that police do in the community and ‘wow, I want to be a policewoman when I grow up.’

She was inspired by you. She trusts you and believes in you.

That’s how we all want to feel about our police force.

Thank you to all those police officers who are trying to do their jobs in a tense and fearful work environment. The ghost letter to the Samoa Observer from a ‘Young Police Officer’ revealed something of the extent of that tension. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to be you. Especially now.

Please, I’m sure I speak the hearts of many when I say, now is the time for all to work together, to have the courage to do what’s right, to put aside personal grievances and focus on being the kind of police officers that we as a nation –  can trust. That we can believe in.

Faavae i le Atua Samoa.

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