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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


Tonga Police Reforms Eclipsed By Recent Issues

By Pesi Fonua

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 21, 2013) – As the Tongan government struggles to reform the Tongan Police, the events of the past months have shattered the integrity of the force and are undermining a five year reform process that had aimed to restore public confidence and turn Tonga Police into the Pacific's leading Police service by 2013.

The revelation during the past few days by Police Commissioner Grant O'Fee that the Tonga Police had an unwritten policy in practice until 2008 that allowed the police to wipe-off from the police record the convictions of some serious criminal offenders, has cast a dark shadow over the image of the Tonga Police.

It has never been easy for Tongans to get visas to work or to study in New Zealand and Australia and now, with the exposure of the Tonga Police's former practice of contriving "clearance" letters, it has become even more difficult for Tongans to get visas.

Not surprisingly, the immigration authorities of New Zealand and Australia are publicly questioning the trustworthiness and the reliability of any references given to them by the Tongan Police. Innocent Tongans are now paying the price in disrupted travel plans and must suffer the consequences of the mistrust by overseas authorities of their Tongan-issued documents.


The extreme violence allegedly used by a few police officers, has also harmed Tonga's reputation.

During the past months seven police officers have been charged with manslaughter, five for the death of a New Zealand Police Officer, Kali Fungavaka while under police custody, and the other two officers for the death of a young man at Vaini earlier this year.

Wake-up call

A wake-up call for Tonga to reform its police force was when the police were caught off-guard and unprepared to stop the destruction of the Nuku'alofa CBD on 16 November 2006.

On that occasion law and order was eventually restored at nightfall after the Tonga Defence Services was called in, but by then it was too late and the town was a smoldering ruins.

In a state of shock, the government sought assistance from its neighbours, New Zealand and Australia, to restore law and order. It was a historical sight when armed Australian, New Zealand and Tongan soldiers were seen manning check-points on entrances to the Nuku'alofa Central Business District.

A Tonga Emergency Power Regulation went into force on 17 November 2006, and it remained in force for five years, until 2 February 2011 when the new Minister of Police, Dr. Viliami Latu informed Cabinet "that the country is peaceful."

Police reform

The country may be peaceful, but a move by government to reform the Tonga Police Force has been like opening up a can of worms, because of resistance from elements within the Tonga Police force itself and from certain government officials.

The Commander of the Tongan Police during the riots of November 16, Commander Sinilau Kolo-ki-hakau-Fisi, resigned in December 2006.

It then took Tonga two years to find a new police commander, and Chris Kelley, a New Zealander, was recruited under a three-year working contract on September 2008.

Commander Kelley's assignment was to set in motion the Tonga Police Force Development Program (TPFDP) to prevent a repeat of 16/11, and to restore the trust of the people in their police force.

In 2009 he launched the Tonga Police's five-year Strategic Plan 2009 – 2013. Key aims were that the Tonga Police would demonstrate commitment to core vales and be accountable for their actions, be leaders in their field and "be known for the right things."

To achieve those aims required organizational development, including not only legislative change, but also investing in staff and emphasizing integrity and impartiality. This meant that honesty and accountability became a primary quality expected of police leaders, who would take actions to establish "an open and transparent means for the lawful progression of complaints against Police."

On October 1, 2010 the Tonga Police Act 2010 was enacted, two months before Tonga's first majority elected government took office in December 2010.

Under the new government of Lord Tu'ivakano, Dr. Viliami Latu was appointed as the new Minister of Police under a new Ministry of Police structure, which was already launched in 2009 and formalized by the Tonga Police Act 2010.

On 21 February 2011 Dr. Viliami Latu declared Chris Kelley as Tonga's first Police Commissioner, but the appointment lasted only five months, before the popular Kelley left Tonga on 6 August, after Cabinet decided not to renew his contract.

The departure of Chris Kelley caused an uproar within government because under the Tonga Police Act 2010 it is the King in Privy Council who has the power to appoint or to terminate the contract of a Police Commissioner, not Cabinet.

Changing ministers

What followed was a struggle by the Prime Minister to find an appropriate elected Member of Parliament to become a Minister of Police.

Toward the end of 2011 Dr. Viliami Latu was removed from the Ministry of Police and was replaced by Lisiate 'Akolo. Then in early 2012 Lisiate swapped ministerial positions with Sunia Fili, who was then the Minister of Finance. A few weeks later Sunia resigned to support a motion for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

After Sunia resigned, the Tonga Police became one of the ministries that was in the portfolio of the Prime Minister, until February 2 this year when Siosifa Tu'utafaiva, the Chairman of the Parliament's Whole House Committee was appointed as the Minister of Police, Prisons and Fire Services; and the Minister of Revenue Services.

Manslaughter cases

In the midst of a fast turn-over of leadership in the Ministry of Police, a number of Tongan Police officers were charged with manslaughter.

A visiting Tongan/New Zealand Police Officer died five months ago while in police custody. Then in November 2012 two Police Constables were charged with manslaughter for the death of a young man at Vaini.

If that was not enough to make one stand up in wonder of what the Tonga Police was doing in 2013 - the year they were supposed to be leading the Pacific, then the recent revelation by the Police Commissioner Grant O'Fee of an unwritten policy of the Tonga Police, that was in practice until 2008, to wipe-off the records of about 172 individuals with criminal convictions, has certainly cast another shadow over the image of the Tonga Police.

The only way forward for the Tongan Police to restore its integrity and to enter a new era, is for everyone wholeheartedly to get behind the reform program that has been implemented, and to accept and respect the values that underpin professionalism, and in turn create confident, safe and secure communities.

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