The wires are buzzing with a politically oriented story about Tonga’s Police Commissioner Grant O’Fee, being ‘fired’ from his job.
Reports are rampant that Commissioner O’Fee has been “pushed out”, or that Cabinet decided not to continue his contract “without explanation”.
Commissioner O’Fee had been under investigation by Cabinet for his involvement in a kidnapping case. In a Police sanctioned and assisted operation, a 13-year-old girl was taken from her legal guardians and spirited out of the country without legal authority.
On the 8th of March 2013, police personnel had a teacher from the girl’s school summon the child to school for some school activity. When the girl showed up, she was seized and carried off. This was done without consulting the Attorney General. The little girl was held under armed guards, at a secret location in Houmakelikao
The second serious legal ‘trespass’ of Commissioner O’Fee was that he also sanctioned sending off the little girl to her mother in the United States, effectively an award of custody.
However, custody rights are an exclusive domain of the Supreme Court, and especially the Chief Justice. Commissioner O’Fee acted as Chief Justice when he green-lighted the transfer of the child to the US. Because it was illegal, it was basically people smuggling.
The Courts heard about the case when the guardians became concerned and reported their little girl missing. Chief Justice Michael Dishington Scott declared the attempt to remove the child “wholly improper and unacceptable”, a serious breach of sovereignty, and a major human rights violation. Chief Justice Scott’s Reasons for Order was presented to the Minister of Justice for “such further action by him as may be thought appropriate”. This initiated the Cabinet investigation.
There was another issue of concern involving the potential appearance (at least) of conflict of interest in the actions of the Commissioner O’Fee.
Previously, including during Commissioner Chris Kelley’s tenure, New Zealand Police Chiefs had been trying to gain access to the specific databases of the Immigration and Foreign Affairs Ministry, including those that register passport details. Excuses varied, though it is should be noted that this information can be useful in intelligence operations.
A few months ago, using the reason of concern about potentially illegally obtained Tongan passports the databases were seized by Police. The regular procedure in other countries, including New Zealand, would be to ask for specific files, not an entire database as ‘fishing expeditions’ are normally considered a breach of privacy, human rights, and national security.
Of additional concern are reports that the databases were then sent out of the country for analysis.
Politicization of Police
From the beginning, even under the British Protectorate, Tonga had its own police chiefs. And Tonga did not, and does not, have a serious crime problem.
New Zealand Police Chiefs were brought in post-2006 as part of the package (which included financial assistance) to ‘handle the people’, and to help government quell any sort of disorder. This is the sort of job that in many places with a small population is done by the military, for example the National Guard in the US.
Tonga Police has put up a ‘Tactical Response Unit’ and a ‘Riot Squad’, with the intention of rooting out and eliminating disorderly behavior.
The Tactical Response Unit is armed and trained with fully automatic M4A rifles, and the Riot Squad is trained to disperse crowds with shields and batons-prompting direct physical confrontation. These are huge hard powers in trying to revive police credibility after the blunders of 2006.
Although commensurate with demands for greater efficiency in maintaining law and order, especially in light of the doctrine of national security and anti-terror activity, these developments are tipping the balance.
Another issue is that inside the force itself the newfound passions among personnel may result in overzealous engagement and the ‘xenophobia’ and ‘inferiority’ resulting from having a New Zealander boss may have been a contributing factor to the environment that resulted in the illegal and tragic death of New Zealand constable Kali Fungavaka while in the hands of the police.
Under the New Zealand chief’s leadership, Tonga Police is being systematically trained to be more forceful and violent towards civilians, under the premise that it will help rectify past mistakes.
As with Commissioner Kelley, Commissioner O’Fee leadership has resulted in a petition from the personnel asking for his removal. Contributing to this is the fact that the Commissioner is a foreigner who had never been to Tonga before his posting and does not speak the language or understand the culture.
This means the Police Commissioner can’t read transcripts or do interviews with witnesses or suspects in their own language. He can’t understand the complex nuances in discussions that evolve in a tightly knit society. He doesn’t know the web of relations of between victims and perpetrators. He can’t even casually attend a kava session where information can be discretely passed on. What results is that he becomes over-reliant on a few key top people, forming an inner circle.
Some of these key peoples have serious violations, yet the Commissioner is giving interviews in the foreign press about ‘corruption’ and ‘brutality’ in Tonga Police. It is not surprising that the rest of the force has even less communication with him and that he feels estranged.
The Trilateral Police Development Program was supposed to return credibility to Tonga Police. But now, even it is out of the best intention, it is taking on the appearance of becoming a way for outside powers to use Tonga how it sees fit (bypass the Court to seize a child, export data, etc), and to try to reshape policing into a clone of systems in other countries, even though the social and cultural situations are entirely different. This reshaping seems designed to reshape the force so that it is easier and more familiar for the other two trilateral partners to ‘handle’. No need to learn the language, so to speak.
Since, turning Tonga Police into a clone of Auckland Police, is doomed to fail given the vast differences in the officers’ operating environments, it may even at some point seem logical to replace all police in Tonga with imports who ‘understand the job better’, as has happened in other countries in the region.
This is not a way of dealing with friends!
When the kidnapping and the intelligence issues were investigated and raised with New Zealand, NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully asked the Tongan government to waive prosecution of the Commissioner but asked that O’Fee be replaced with another New Zealander.
To many officers in the force, the outcome of these events makes it seem there is immunity and impunity for New Zealand police chiefs in Tonga, making it unclear where the ‘corruption’ line is drawn. Is that the standard they are to work towards?
Meanwhile the Commissioner does interviews in the New Zealand media about corruption and brutality in Tonga and a “level of dishonesty I was not used to in the [New Zealand] police”. Is that the way to build trust, respect, and cooperation? Or to lay the groundwork for a new New Zealand Commissioner?
If the goal is help Tonga Police better serve the people of Tonga, advisers and partners can help. But after a short stint they leave, and it is the Tongans who will be left behind to pick up the pieces. They need to be allowed to take the lead. No one knows Tonga better. And then, as equals, the three partners can work together to help each other get their respective jobs done.
The average salary for a Tongan police officer is TOP7000 a year. Hardly enough to keep a family on. What needs to happen is to increase the menial budget of police and return some prestige and honor at least into their identities, and to let it grow organically, from the ground up, with the communities. Not from the top down from the outside. No one will benefit. Not New Zealand, and certainly not the people of Tonga.