Who Should the Police Serve and Whom DO they Serve?
When, last year, this newspaper pointed to the dangers inherent in the proposed Police Act (2006) and the risks of allowing any Executive extensive control of the police - a body whose duty is to all sections of the community - we were accused of inaccurate sensationalism and news-mongering of the worst possible sort. Our warnings went largely unheeded; however a series of recent events point to the heavy-handedness which we feared might develop not only having gained a foothold in the Royal Gibraltar Police but in some aspects becoming almost institutionalised.
One of the first signs of this - and little more at the time than a straw blowing in the wind - was the move to silence and remove a lone protester who had struggled to the Upper Rock and attempted to unfurl a less than welcoming banner with which to greet the party of Spanish amigos accompanied by the Chief Minister on a triumphal visit to Gibraltar marking the arrival here of Iberia's first flight. The man, slightly built and neither an Arnold Schwarznegger nor a Sylvester Stalone, posed no threat to the official cavalcade...yet his lone voice was effectively silenced.
What happened to one of the basic cornerstones of democracy - his right to freedom of speech? Yet hardly a voice was raised in protest at his treatment or in defence of his rights. And there lies the rub. No-one complained. And, such is the human condition that if an initial transgression goes unremarked and unquestioned the offence comes increasingly more easily the second, third and fourth time.
This is as true of the behaviour of criminals as it is of that of the police, and its sets the pattern for a gradual erosion of the freedoms we have come to cherish as part of the democratic fabric. So no-one should have been surprised when, less than a month ago, the RGP Commissioner Louis Wink intervened personally with threats of arrest in a demonstration of St John Ambulance staff who were protesting outside St Bernard's Hospital. Police and ambulance staff have always worked closely and harmoniously, so it is hardly surprising that the threats and a substantial police presence upset and traumatized some of the ambulance staff.
And the bad taste which this clash left was still strongly alive when on Friday a week ago a disabled and impoverished local man went public with his grievances and difficulties in Main Street and was first threatened by the police and, when the following day he insisted on his right to free speech was arrested - allegedly for a speeding offence four years ago. His sign read "No social assistance,. No disability benefit. No allowance. Abandoned by Government. Forced to busk."
THREATENED WITH ARREST
Harmless. Hurting no-one. And certainly no more of a threat to our social order and well-being than that of the normal chaotic bustle of Main Street's pedestrian crowds. But he claims he was told that it was "illegal to show the sign", that he was picketing and demonstrating without permission and that if he did not remove the sign he would be arrested. Just who are the police serving in such a situation? Whose orders are the Jobsworth bobbies on the beat obeying?
Yesterday came the most serious allegation of all from the Equality Rights Group GGR who lamented the lack of a sympathetic response from the Police Commissioner to their concerns over what they believe is "a slow trend of increasing homophobic violence and harassment" - a situation which they say the Commissioner refused to acknowledge and was unwilling to explore positive ways forward.
In a society dominated by Roman Catholicism - a religion which abhors non-heterosexual relationships - and whose Government is led by a man who is clearly homophobic, the Commissioner's reaction (or lack of it) is as unsurprising as it is disappointing. But it also begs the question: Who dictates what the police's role should be, when it should act and whom it should act against?
If, as many suspect, it is the Executive, the Police Act indeed casts a dark and depressing shadow over our democracy...