PHILIPSBURG–If a citizen has a complaint about police action, St. Maarten Police Force KPSM investigates that complaint itself. According to reports from various sources, the handling is often unsatisfactory for the complainant. “This has to change,” said Justice Minister Anna Richardson, who has nominated individuals for the new Police Action Complaints Committee.
Nominees are currently being reviewed. The Complaints Committee will consist of three members and six alternate members, who will be appointed for a period of three years on the recommendation of the minister of justice. Unlike the current complaint handling by KPSM’s Internal Affairs (IA) Department, most members of the new committee will not be members of the Police Force. Two members have been nominated by the attorney general and two by the Bar Association.
Richardson said: “We’ve had one or two hiccups, but progress is being made. I expect to be able to present the new Complaints Committee shortly.”
She agrees that citizens must be able to defend themselves against incorrect police action, as was stipulated by law on January 28, 1994, in the former Netherlands Antilles with the establishment of the Complaints Committee on Police Action. The establishment of the independent Complaints Committee has been regulated by law since 10-10-10, but St. Maarten has not implemented this law in the past 10 years.
Complaints about police brutality have been on the desk of KPSM’s Internal Affairs Department since 2010. Complaints from citizens reach KPSM by personal declaration, in writing, or by referral from the Ombudsman or the Prosecutor’s Office.
Internal Affairs registered 11 complaints in 2018. One of these came from Member of Parliament Raeyhon Peterson, who was held at gunpoint by police after he had survived a head-on collision with a speeding car on Welfare Road and had lashed out at the reckless driver who had totalled his vehicle.
Police pointed guns at Peterson and his father, who had rushed to the scene of the accident, and put both in a holding cell at the Philipsburg police station for four days, denying Peterson senior the prescribed treatment for his medical condition.
“I filed a complaint with police on behalf of my father and myself, but never heard back,” MP Peterson said.
Three years later the Court of Justice acquitted father and son of six of the seven charges brought by the police. The Court found only evidence that “hot-headed” Peterson had pushed the person responsible for the accident and immediately helped him to his feet. The Court decided not to rule in favour of punishment.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to defend myself against the charges brought forward by police,” Peterson said. “Having studied law, I knew my rights. And I had the financial means to take this case to court. But a lot of people in St. Maarten don’t have that option when faced with police brutality.”
A police officer broke a young woman’s arm on October 10, 2020, during a struggle with police officers at the Texaco gas station close to the causeway. The woman J.M. had refused to cooperate with mental health nurses who wanted to force medication on her on the spot. After officers restrained her and a nurse gave her an injection, J.M. had to be transported to St. Maarten Medical Center for treatment of the arm fracture.
J.M. filed two complaints with the prosecutor: one for police violence, and the other for unlawful medical treatment. The National Ordinance for supervision of the mentally ill prescribes that compulsive medication is only permitted based on a KZ statement, or declaration of insanity, signed by the minister of Health, Social Affairs and Labor VSA.
KZ only applies within the medical institution – the VSA minister has appointed Mental Health Foundation to provide treatment – and does not justify medication under duress in the street. Nevertheless, the police use force to restrain patients who refuse medication.
As a result of her arm fracture, J.M., a pâtissier by profession, was unable to work and had no income. She had to seek help from a lawyer.
In 2018, the Law Enforcement Council found that the complaints procedure at KPSM left much to be desired. “The Internal Affairs Department is extremely vulnerable because it has only two employees who are also both approaching retirement,” the council wrote in its report.
Due to the lack of legislation on the design of the corps, the police function books, the Internal Affairs Department could not be expanded, and the partly related intended quality improvement from the Committee of Chiefs of Police was obstructed, according to the Law Enforcement Council.
“The IA Department is an important part of the St. Maarten Police Force as one of the guardians of integrity. In the Council’s opinion, an effective internal affairs process can ensure that complaints about or against officers are handled adequately and that police officers are protected against false accusations by means of honest, thorough, accurate and impartial investigation.
“The same goes for internal investigations conducted by the Police Force in relation to possible misbehaviour, crimes or other breaches of conduct. In addition, a strong internal affairs function could improve both morality within the Force and increase confidence in the police within society.”
According to the Ambtsinstructie Politie, the Official Police Instruction, the chief of police must notify the prosecutor of a report of the use of force within 24 hours of receipt if the consequences of the use of force so warrant. By law, the police chief should always contact the Prosecutor’s Office in case of gun use by a police officer, if one or more shots have been fired. It is not clear whether all incidents of violence are reported.
The use of force should be registered by the head of the IA Department. The work of the department further includes disciplinary investigations, handling of complaints and advising the chief of police. These tasks are part of the tasks envisaged in the development plan, the function house and the annual plans.
The Law Enforcement Council stated: “The role and expectations of the staff members of the IA Department in the complaints procedure are summarily described. The Council notes several differences between the procedure laid down in writing and its implementation in practice. The procedure is based on a certain entry of complaints, written notification and central registration, but in practice this is not executed as intended or described.
“The foregoing is not a direct responsibility of the IA Department; however, it can affect whether and how many complaints will eventually reach the department. The IA Department itself is in charge of investigating the complaint. Bottlenecks that are mentioned are communication towards the plaintiff and processing within the deadline of six weeks.”
Justice Minister Richardson advocates a more purposeful and efficient procedure. The new Complaints Committee for Police Action should enable citizens to hold the police accountable when a member of the Police Force crosses the line.
The Complaints Committee will follow its own procedure. Part of this is a hearing for which witnesses are called. In addition, the committee members are at all times authorised to demand inspection of books and documents. The committee has access to all places where entry is required. As soon as the Complaints Committee has completed its investigation, it draws up a report and sends it to the complainant, the minister and the relevant police officer. The conclusions may give rise to further legal action.