By Elesha George
Dozens of police officers and firefighters demanding better working conditions, risk pay and medical insurance have rejected invitations to meet with Minister of National Security, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin and Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
They are demanding the government leaders meet them on their terms at the police ground, where scores of them gathered yesterday for a third consecutive day as part of action being taken in response to a slew of grievances.
Browne had offered to meet with the executive of the Police Welfare Association in Cabinet next Wednesday to discuss officers’ concerns, while Benjamin requested representatives meet with him at the Attorney General’s office today at 11am to discuss the status of medical insurance for police and fire officers.
Benjamin, in a letter, said he was extending an invitation for a second time and would invite technicians from the Public Works Department, a representative of State Insurance and the permanent secretary from the Ministry of Public Safety to sit in.
He admitted to being invited to meet with the law enforcement officials on Wednesday at the Police Recreation Ground but said he was unable to do so as he was expected at Cabinet that day.
Meanwhile, the PM in his letter, suggested some reprieve by offering “to expedite the completion of police headquarters building on American Road, rental of a private building to relocate Bolans Police Station, immediate repairs to the Parham Police Station [and] increase the quota of homes allocated to police officers in various housing projects”.
It was not until Browne suggested providing paint and other resources for the officers to do the work themselves that a sea of boos erupted at the grounds.
“In order to expedite the refurbishing of other stations, the Cabinet has also agreed to provide paint and other building materials to the Police Welfare Association, whose members with the plethora of skills could assist in sprucing up some of the stations,” the document read.
It was followed by shouts, including “Nonsense, out of place, out of order, me wa vomit, me cah breathe”.
Browne, who wrote that he had no obligation to meet with the officers, surmised that although the demands are justified, the action has come at an “ill-opportune time” as revenues are down by 60 per cent and the government is struggling to pay public servants, including the police as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, officers argue that they have been asking for the same improvements for decades and have made no additional demands of the administration.
One officer revealed that two years after returning from university, he still had not been provided with a uniform or a police ID. Others say that they have had to pay for their own medical expenses even when injured on the job and any repayment only materialised years later.
They also spoke of a lack of running water at the stations as well as deteriorating fixtures and plumbing.
“The CBH has not come and check no police stations to see if police here have the things in place so that people can wash their hands,” an officer said.
In addition to being asked to fix their own stations, the officers accused the authorities of trying to threaten and intimidate them by using a section in the Police Act which precludes police officers from engaging in protest.
The officers who say they are acting under the guise of association meetings added that they will no longer be threatened into submission. They have vowed to carry on meeting all through the weekend and the weeks ahead if need be.
“Not only those executive but other executives have been patient, now the time has come for us to continue standing and fighting. We’re still at the back of the bus,” said Chairman Roosevelt Browne.
“It cah happen. We ain’t going … close doors are done with now… They’re threatening us with chapter 330,” touted Deputy Chair Marilyn Harris.
The officers are also pushing back against an increase in the age of retirement from 60 to 65, questioning the health of officers at that age and the level of contribution they would be able to provide to communities.
“You could run down a criminal at the age of 65? How effective can you be at that age doing police work?” questioned one acting sergeant.
Another officer asked, “what would the Antiguan public want from their police?”, reasoning that they would want strong officers who can ably respond to reports.