Last week, Sister Yaya posted on facebook an observation she made about what she thought was a uniformed police officer standing duty at a Chinese restaurant in Belize City. It turns out that the police officer was indeed on, what those in the Department call, “special duty”. The owner of the restaurant confirmed that for a significant period of time he has been paying for an officer to be present at his establishment and that this practice has been around for decades; therefore, he could not understand why people were suddenly concerned. Fair enough!
Whereas the Police Rules, made pursuant to section 7 of the Police Act, allow for the employment of police officers for private purposes, it appears to me that the intent, could not have been for police officers to hold standing duty at private establishments. Rule 11 states that “[w]here members of the Department of and below the rank of Inspector are required for private purposes, such as keeping order at fetes, dances and similar entertainments, or at meetings or functions whatever, the person requiring their services shall pay to the Commissioner of Police in advance the following sums of money for each such member of the Department.” If you look at the examples of “private purposes” set out in the Rules and you apply the legal principle of ejusdem generis, which is often used in statutory interpretation, you would have to conclude that restaurants could not properly fit in the category of “private purposes” as contained in the Rules.
Clearly the practice of the private engagement of police officers has evolved to the point where more and more business owners are relying on the police to provide protective services instead of private security firms. I will argue that there is a direct correlation between the current state of public insecurity and the demand for the private employment of police officers. This reality presents somewhat of a deep conundrum since the Police Department is being asked to defend private business from the state of public insecurity for which they (the BPD) are to some degree directly responsible.
I do not support the wanton use of police officers for such standing duty primarily for three reasons. Firstly, it highlights the unequal nature of access to the police. Secondly it exposes police officers to undue influences, and thirdly it can contribute to officer fatigue, thus impacting their performance on their regular duty.
The ability to pay a police officer to stand duty at one’s place of business skews the public security landscape toward those with greater wealth. Thus, in the case of the restaurant in question their business/customers are considerably safer than say a small restaurant on south-side Belize City that is barely breaking even and whose owner cannot afford to pay for police officers. Surely this cannot be fair.
There are good arguments, however, coming from the business owners’ side as well. They claim that the state of public insecurity has shifted a significant portion of the financial cost of public security to the private sector which must now pay police officers privately, in order to obtain some measure of security. With a going rate of $12.50/hour for a constable, this cuts deeply into their bottom line.
It is my view that this practice, as a matter of routine, exposes police officers to undue influence by business owners. If a police officer makes a significant portion of his/her income from a particular business owner through the performance of special duty, that officer would be less inclined to address infractions by that business owner out of fear that the business owner may not engage him/her for any more special duty. Police officers may also develop a bias, leading to preferential treatment in terms of the attention paid to matters concerning the business owner who contributes to his/her financial wellbeing.
My final point of contention is fatigue. Acute fatigue, according to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, “results from short-term sleep loss or from short periods of heavy physical or mental work.”
Police officers work very demanding 12-hour shifts. When you couple that with “special duty” which is usually performed on the officer’s day off, you can reasonably conclude that there is a risk that officers are likely to report to their regular duty somewhat fatigued if they undertake too much “special duty”.
Two of the side effects of fatigue are loss of patience and irritability; fatigued officers are therefore likely to be less tolerant towards the general public. Considering that the going rate for a constable is $12.50/hour (almost twice the $6.50/hour contained in the law) police officers are going to be enticed to work as much “special duty” as they can in order to earn the extra cash; particularly in the hard economic climate that we face.
I can certainly understand the need for business owners to protect their business and for our police officers to be able to earn a decent living, but this must not come at the expense of our overall public security. I do believe business owners should make greater use of private security guards and that we should consider a better compensation package for our police officers so that they can focus on serving the public and only the public!
Major Lloyd Jones (R)