The role of Tonga's police force came under scrutiny in the wake of the rioting which led to much of the capital, Nukualofa, being burned down in 2006. Their response to the emergency was judged harshly by some, including the government, and complaints from members of the public about police behaviour had been mounting for some time anyway. The government decided to launch a program to reform the police immediately, and during a recent visit to Tonga, Bruce Hill hit the streets to see those changes first-hand.

By Bruce Hill

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Dec. 30, 2010) –Okay, so Nuku'alofa isn't exactly Miami, awash in crime, drugs, and stubbled policemen wearing pastel shirts and driving quarter of a million dollar sportscars, but crime is crime and cops are cops no matter where in the world you are.

I asked the Commander of the Tonga police, Chris Kelley, why the government had decided to make so many changes in the way the force works.

"I think quite clearly that the government realised that the police were not really well positioned to respond to serious incidences such as they faced in 2006," he said.

"Quite frankly, it appears that they were poorly led and they lacked confidence, and those things in themselves, I think the government realised, needed to change, and sparked the reform process."

Commander Kelley, a New Zealander, was appointed to lead the force in 2008. He says the main reforms have been in the police development program.

"They're about things like ethics and integrity, they're about technical capability and public order response, they're about transparency and being open with the public, they're about integrity, in other words, ensuring that our staff comply with the law like anybody else, and actually provide a safer community - a safe and free environment - for people to live and work in," he said.

"I think, without doubt there's been an acknowledgement by all staff, by all members of the Tonga police, that change need to occur. It's very hard to gauge what the level of acceptance is, and there is a difference between acknowledgement and acceptance. In most cases, I've found good acceptance, in some cases reluctance, in one or two cases, and almost blindness.

"This is a long-term process, without doubt. I'm not so naive as to think that I could come in here, fix everything and then drive off into the sunset. That's ridiculous."

That all sounded fine, but I wanted to see for myself how this was working at street level, so I arranged to ride along in a police car on what turned out to be a rainy Saturday night. I was hoping I'd get to ride with a tough 20 year veteran detective who'd seen it all and would talk like a character from CSI.

But it turns out reality isn't anything like what you see on TV. We drove all over Nuku'alofa, and to be honest, very little happened. Turns out my American TV cop shows totally lied to me. Mind you, it was kind of fun just being in a police car.

Now there were a couple of incidents, this was Saturday night after all. Around five minutes into our patrol, a call came in that members of the public had seen some kids drinking beer down by the wharf.

We arrived at the wharf and saw some movement. I could sense things were about to kick off. Two of the policemen got out, approached the kids, and said "Hey you kids, don't drink beer at the wharf. So the kids left. Later on, we got another call - some kids were at a dance at Queen Salote Hall, and some of them were seen drinking beer. Once again, it was all on!

Once we arrived at the hall, we saw some kids hanging around outside. None of them were drinking beer. One of the policemen asked them if they had been drinking beer, and they said no they hadn't.

So we left, and went back to the station.

The rain-slicked streets of Nuku'alofa on a Saturday night were clearly not going to provide me with a chance to write a pulitzer prize winning essay about the exciting work of crime fighting. I spoke to Detective Sergeant Latu Lavaki back at the central police station, and he told me that as Tongatapu is an island, and most people are pretty law-abiding, most crimes are committed by a very small number of people.

"Most of the crime that is reported on the phone, some people, they come straight to the station," he said.

"We get a lot of reports here."

Detective Sergeant Lavaki says working with a small community means police can often identify those responsible for crimes quickly.

And he says living on an island makes tracking certain crimes, like car theft, relatively easier.

"We work together with the traffic division...but probably we will take an hour, because this is an island [and it's] easy to get it," he said.

Detective Sergeant Lavaki was clearly a calm, thoughtful man who wanted to protect and serve the people of Tonga. Which was something of a shame, as I was kind of hoping he would turn out to be a maverick, a loose cannon who played by his own rules and who told his Captain he didn't care if the Mayor was breathing down his neck, he would get results his own way and to hell with proper procedure.

In the whole time I was doing this, there was not a single shoot-out with bank robbers, there wasn't a high speed car chase. The guy in charge didn't even take off his sunglasses in slow-motion and make an amusing remark.

I was starting to get the impression that crime fighting in Tonga was in fact nowhere near as glamorous or exciting as it looks on TV. I was feeling a bit cheated, so I took my complaint right to the top - Commander Kelley.

"Hopfully it's an outfit that can respond to the things you've described, but the fact that they didn't occur is good, because that tells me that we are having some effect," he said.

"Tonga, in my experience, is a relatively peaceful and safe place. It does have its...normal or routine crime rates, and occasionally it has incidents which are spectacular. Those incidents come along [and] I think the public have an expectation that we'll be prepared to respond to that in a confident and capable manner, and that clearly was the issue in 2006, and I don't want that to be the incident again."


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