St. Maarten’s Police chief wants debate about releasing suspects

POSTED: 06/15/12 12:42 PM
Chief Commissioner Peter de Witte.

Court rulings frustrate diligent work police officers

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – The operational strength of the police force currently stands at 244, an increase of 55 since Chief Commissioner Peter de Witte took command in June 2010. At 62.7 percent of its targeted formation with 389 personnel the force has made significant headway in the fight against crime, and De Witte has the figures to back up that claim.

“We are working as efficiently as possible,” the Chief Commissioner told this newspaper during a lunch meeting in town.

His strategy advisor Henk van Straten elaborates on that statement: “Previously the police simply reacted when something happened. Now we have set four main priorities: crimes against life (murder and manslaughter – ed.), (armed) robberies, home burglaries and sex offenses.”

In 2011 there was a significant increase in the number of murders and manslaughters. This increase was caused by the Regatta-murders and the deadly violence that appears from the Vesuvius-investigation. Compared to 2010, the number of deadly crimes jumped from 7 to 18. “But we managed to solve 67 percent of them,” De Witte says. “So far this year we have had only four murders and we solved three of them. Most of them were relation or family-related, not crime-related.”

Attempted manslaughter cases decreased last year from 12 to 9. Other statistics show a decline in home burglaries by 23 percent (from 667 reported cases in 2010 to 519 last year), a 36 percent decline in other burglaries (from 199 to 128) and 22 percent fewer car thefts. Only the number of (armed) robberies showed a disconcerting increase of 24 percent from 238 to 296.

The force has beefed up its forensics department and the development of modern investigation methods have helped solve many cases. Until a couple of years ago fingerprinting on crime scenes was rather useless because there was no database to compare these prints with. Since the arrival of forensic investigator Jos van Deventer, the police have been steadily building that database.

“Previously police work was incident-oriented,” De Witte says. “Now we are working smarter. We are doing more crime analysis and that returns better results.”

Community policing is part of the new approach. If this is well done, it will give investigators easier access to more information about what is going on in the community.

De Witte underlines that his staff is putting a lot of effort in tracking down criminals. “It is important to get those people off the streets,” he says.

That becomes evident from the fact that after the violent 2011 and the arrest of many suspects in the Vesuvius-investigation the number of crime-related murders has practically evaporated. But there are other crimes that warrant attention as well; among them are obviously robberies and home burglaries.

But the diligent work of police officers is at times frustrated by court rulings that are hard to explain to the average citizen. In April for instance, Judge of Instruction mr. Coen Luijks ordered the immediate release of Leon G., a native of St. Kitts who had confessed to sixteen armed robberies. The release order was based on a complaint by G.’s attorneys that their client had been detained at the Simpson Bay House of Detention but that he had not been taken on a daily basis to Pointe Blanche to follow the day program there. G. was handed over to the immigration department and deported. He is scheduled to appear in court on August 23, but it is doubtful that he will show up to attend the hearing.

While Chief Commissioner De Witte is the first to support the notion that rulings by the independent judge need to be respected, he also points out the effects some rulings have on the morale of his staff.

“This is frustrating,” he says. “I do not want to comment on individual cases, but I feel that there is a need for a public and political discussion about how to balance the interests of the community against the interests of suspects. I think we have to take the seriousness of the crimes into account and then consider the consequences for the community of releasing someone because his rights have been violated. Of course those violations have to be compensated, but there are certainly alternatives for immediate release. In many cases releasing someone does not improve safety and security in our community. It is also frustrating for the officers who have worked hard to track them down. We need that discussion and determine which instruments are available to prevent this.”

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