Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell said today he was yet to receive an official complaint from members of an aggrieved Grenadian family of five who claim they were not only falsely accused of stealing a mobile phone in Barbados, but also subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment by officers of the Royal Barbados Police Force.
However, based on what he has heard and seen reported in the media so far of the incident, which is alleged to have involved a strip search of two female members of the Gilbert family, Mitchell has issued a veiled warning to the Freundel Stuart administration that it may need to seriously rein in its law enforcement officers.
“The truth is watching it and listening to it, it doesn’t look well or doesn’t sound well at all, particularly given the need for continued deepening of the [Caribbean Community] family unit,” Mitchell told Barbados TODAY in an interview this evening.
“It seems to me that there might have been an over-reaction from a report, and if what I saw is true, the [Barbadian] police may have to examine their approach in a matter of this nature because, as it turns out, there may not be any basis for it from all reports I have heard,” he added.
What started out as a family’s visit to Bridgetown for a visa appointment reportedly turned into the Gilberts’ worst nightmare last October after a store owner accused one of the women of stealing her mobile phone.
Tamika Gilbert and her sister Lynell subsequently claimed that both them and their cousin were virtually stripped of their dignity by the officers, who shouted at them, insulted them, prevented them from speaking to other family members, brought them water three hours after they had made a request, and had one sister use the toilet with the door opened and an officer standing guard.
However, the sisters, who were also travelling with their mother and father, said the most humiliating part of the experience was when they were actually strip-searched.
“I went to the bathroom and she [female police officer] is at the stall with her back to the door and she said, ‘take your hair down’ cause my hair is in braids and it was in a bun, then she says, ‘take off all your clothes stoop and cough’.
“I started to cry . . . [but] she wasn’t even satisfied with how low I stooped,” said Tamika in recounting the incident to Barbados TODAY last week after she and her sister spoke out publicly for the first time on the incident on a television programme in their homeland on Thursday night.
With the matter still under investigation by Barbadian police, Mitchell said it was “extremely unfortunate” and sent the wrong message about CARICOM.
However, he acknowledged that from time to time there were reports of overzealous customs and immigration officials in the various territories, whose actions appeared to run contrary to the very objectives set by their leaders and their country as a whole.
Admittedly Grenada was not immune to such behaviour, said Mitchell, though he was particularly worried about the growing frequency of such reports with respect to Barbados.
“Maybe what is necessary, like what I do here, is a second look at the operations and the approaches in the system,” he suggested to the Barbados Government amid the worrying allegations by members of the Gilbert family who now swear that they will never visit Bridgetown again.
“Watching it, it looks very painful and if I had a daughter, I certainly would not want her to go through what I saw reported,” Mitchell told Barbados TODAY, who pointed out that the two women at the centre of the strip search allegations were the daughters of a Grenadian pastor.
“I know the family and they have a very good history in terms of their character and conduct in their society, so I don’t know them to be the type of family to walk in and do what I saw reported.”
However, the prime minister said he was prepared to give Barbados the benefit of the doubt, at least until the matter could be fully investigated.
The incident has evoked an emotive response from Grenadians of all walks of life, including some who have called for the withdrawal of diplomatic relations with Bridgetown.
However, Mitchell, who is married to a Barbadian and also went to school here, said: “That is certainly out the question at this stage”.
In fact he cautioned his countrymen that an over-reaction would not solve the problem, even though he acknowledged that as a private citizen he had encountered “a sense of arrogance on the part of some customs and immigration officials in Barbados”.
Nonetheless, Mitchell was not about to paint all Barbadians with the same brush.
“Sometimes public servants take individual decisions that send a wrong message at the political directorate level and the country level and sometimes we as leaders have to find out the facts and advise accordingly, and that is precisely what will be the approach. But it does not look good and it is not the kind of incident that we want to see prevailing, especially in light of the incident that occurred sometime ago with the Jamaican lady; it is not one that the Barbados Government and people would want to see continue,” he said.
It was an obvious reference to the ugly Shanique Myrie episode on which Barbados was tried, tested and found guilty of infringing the rights of the CARICOM national to enter its doors in keeping with the provisions of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy.
While touting the historically strong relations between the two CARICOM countries, Mitchell stressed that “the matter was one that needed to be tackled at the public service and the administrative level within Barbados”.
In the meantime, he expects to receive a formal report on the incident involving the Gilberts before the end of this week.