By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
PRIME Minister Dr Hubert Minnis says he does not know what the “big deal” is when it comes to controversy over high-ranking Royal Bahamas Police Force officers being asked to take accumulated vacation followed by retirement. Instead Dr Minnis asked: “What is wrong with taking vacation?”
He added he was confident RBPF Commissioner Anthony Ferguson had the matter under control.
However, Dr Minnis did not clearly answer a question about the government’s or the organisation’s strategy for filling the vacancies created, only insisting that Commissioner Ferguson would not do anything to endanger the lives and safety of Bahamians.
The prime minister’s most firm deceleration, though, was that the government would not be paying anyone for accumulated vacation and that this position applied across the board in all government agencies and organisations, even to himself.
He was asked about the controversial exodus of top cops from the force on Saturday following a summary to the press of his meeting with US President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Friday and took the matter on as Commissioner Ferguson looked on, standing just to his right.
“What is wrong with taking vacation? They are entitled to take vacation. What’s wrong with that?” Dr Minnis responded in the face of questions over the issue.
“We have a very astute, organised commissioner of police,” he continued when he was asked to reveal the plan to fill the vacancies. “The commissioner will not do anything to endanger the lives and the safety of the Bahamas.
“Just as I have confidence in the commissioner to send individuals off on vacation you should have confidence. He and his team have already cut crime down dramatically. (In) the inner-city alone murder has decreased by 40 percent when we look at the rates. Armed robbery has decreased in the inner-city by 24 percent so I trust him and the Bahamian people trust him. I would hope that the press do. You are also Bahamians. Are you not Bahamian?”
It is not clear how the prime minister’s stats were derived, but in January, Commissioner Ferguson said murders dropped 25 percent in 2018 when compared to 2017. Overall crime dropped by eight percent while crimes against the person dropped by 16 percent, according to police statistics. There were also 474 armed robberies, 108 robberies, and 13 attempted robberies in the country last year, according to police.
Assistant Commissioners of Police Clayton Fernander, Ashton Greenslade, Ken Strachan, Theophilus Cunningham and Leamond Deleveaux received notice to take accrued vacation leave effective immediately last week – bringing the total number of senior officers placed on pre-retirement leave in recent weeks to eight.
A police insider told The Tribune last week that Commissioner Ferguson and Royal Bahamas Defence Force Commodore Tellis Bethel are also among those persons slated for pre-retirement leave in the near future.
The Tribune asked Dr Minnis to respond to criticism about the manner in which the officers were sent on pre-retirement leave.
He responded: “But everybody is entitled to vacation. What’s wrong with asking individuals to go on vacation?
“When we came in we initiated a policy, government initiated a policy. We asked individuals who have long vacation leave to go on vacation because this government will not pay you for it. That was a problem of the past. We are watching the Bahamian money.
“I’m not saying this happened with the police. Now don’t get me wrong. I worked in the public service. I came up through the public service and it was not unusual that individuals employed in the public sector would have taken their leave but not record it and then at the end coming near their retirement they would have three four years vacation.”
He continued: “Now I am not saying that’s what happened with the police, don’t get me wrong. The public is hearing me, they streaming me, listen to me those of you listening. I said individuals are entitled to vacation. I also said that from experience in the hospital while working in the public sector I am cognisant of the fact that individuals take their time off, but do not record it and therefore at the end nearing their retirement we as government must pay them for two three years vacation that they may have taken.
“I did not say that’s what the police were doing.
“As I speak now I am asking all Bahamians who have long vacations the policy of the government is to take your vacation because we are not paying for vacation and that applies to everyone across the board including me,” Dr Minnis said when The Tribune asked him if this was the policy for other parts of government.
He did not give an answer on when there would be an announcement of a new deputy police commissioner and seemed to be on the defensive about being questioned over the situation.
At one point he was asked if there was an acting deputy commissioner, but seemed to misunderstand the question, responding: “I was acting commissioner of police? Me?”
Earlier this month it was revealed that Deputy Commissioner Emrick Seymour, Senior Assistant Commissioner Stephen Dean and Assistant Commissioner Clarence Reckley were all asked to take accrued vacation ahead of their respective retirements from the force.
“The police force is running very well. The commissioner will decide what he puts forth (and) how he wants to rearrange his police force,” the prime minister also said on Saturday. “Remember we did a manpower assessment audit so we would review that. Rome was not built in a day, OK.”
When a reporter stated that the commissioner, as the number one officer on the force would need a deputy who is his number two, Dr Minnis said: “Yeah number one needs number two, number two needs number three and three need the four, so what’s the big deal?”
Again asked when the announcement of a new deputy commissioner would be made, Dr Minnis said: “When they give you number two then you want three, four, five, six.”
Meanwhile, National Security Minister Marvin Dames did not confirm last week future departures as he fielded questions from the media; however, he stressed there was nothing “sinister” about the ongoing “transformation” of law enforcement agencies.
He stressed successive governments have allowed accrued vacation - which should be capped at 15 weeks - to “run amok”.
Separate meetings with executive teams from the police and defence force were held on Wednesday, according to Mr Dames, who said discussions focused on the significant financial strain excessive accrued vacation poses for the government.
However, the Progressive Liberal Party has asserted a “political purge” was taking place in the police force, charging that it was an attempt to eliminate PLP supporters from the public service. PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell slammed the move as “evil and wicked” actions that the party condemns.