December 22, 2002
If this is a bad Christmas for the populace, it must be the worst one ever for the police, who have cancelled their annual evening of carols and Old Year's Night dance both for security reasons and out of respect for the officers who have been slain and injured this past year. In a poignant irony, the police unveiled a monument on January 30 to members of the force who had been killed in the line of duty between 1913 and 2001. The total was 24, representing an average of less than 0.3 men per year. By any country's standards, that is a very low figure. Yet in this single year of lunacy, eleven officers have been shot - more than one third of the total for an almost nine-decade span.
Whatever criticisms one has of the Guyana Police Force (GPF), and there are many, no law-abiding member of the public could fail to be sympathetic to its losses over the last ten months, as well as to the extraordinary difficulties it has faced, and the demoralisation to which its officers have been subject. That the force has not measured up in these exceptional times, is not something for which it should accept all the responsibility.
Like so many institutions in this country, the professionalism of the GPF has been undermined by the politicians over an extended time frame, beginning in the days when the PNC was in government. The problem that this Government faced with the police force - and with the security forces in general, it might be added - is hardly a secret. However, it was not very rational in the approach it took to address that problem, and it ended up merely weakening the institution further. Coupled with this, the administration refused to entertain any criticism of the police, and in particular of the controversial Target Special Squad (TSS), which meant that until recently, it effectively closed its eyes to all possibility of reform and improvement.
The lessons the Government has learned in the past months, have been expensive ones. However, at least now there is official recognition that in order to function effectively, a police force must be equipped. On June 7, the President announced that $100M would be spent on the GPF this year, over and above its budgetary allocation. At a superficial level, armed members of the force already look much better kitted out for the job they are being required to perform than they did nine months ago.
There has too been a public acknowledgement that solving crimes and ensuring the security of citizens - not to mention the Government - depends on professionalism. British assistance is being provided for the reform of the force and President Jagdeo has outlined proposals directed at upgrading the intelligence-gathering capacity of the GPF, establishing a specialised training centre for ranks, and creating a 'crack crime force' along the lines of a SWAT team.
At first the intention was for the new crime unit to complement the TSS; however, in the context of the Social Partners forum, the Government has since agreed to disband the TSS, although since then, it has been reported in the Guyana Chronicle that some members of the 'Black Clothes' will be incorporated into the new unit. Exactly how many this will involve, and who they will be has not been revealed. Certainly, if the end result turned out to be that to all intents and purposes the TSS was just being renamed, then it would defeat the purpose of the exercise. If that is not the intention, then much would depend on which members were to be transferred, if the reputation of the new unit is not to be compromised before it even gets properly underway.
Restoring professionalism and morale in the GPF is not something which will happen overnight; that is a long-term project. The public perception has been one of a corrupt force, a perception bolstered not just by the alleged extra-judicial killings carried out mostly by the TSS, but by damaging evidence emerging from the Thomas Carroll case concerning their operations. In addition, citizens were firmly convinced during the current crisis, that the police could not be trusted with confidential information, because it would be passed on to the bandits.
The handling of the case involving the men detained by the army recently has done nothing to assuage public suspicion of the police, and by its prevarications on the subject, the Government too has only succeeded in raising questions about its role. No viable explanation has been proffered for the men in the Good Hope case not being charged; if they are not, then the administration will only succeed in subverting citizens' confidence in its declared intention of reforming the police.
No police force can be truly effective unless it has the trust of the public, and it will take a relatively clean record for an extended period and a lot of hard work in the communities on the part of the GPF before that becomes reality. In addition, now is the time for the Government to accept the need for an independent police complaints authority to investigate allegations made by citizens against officers; that too would go some way towards building back public confidence. The issue is not a personal one of who does or does not head the existing authority; the issue is one of independence in an institutional sense.
What the politicians have finally to commit themselves to in a meaningful way, is allowing the police force to function professionally, without the distortions created by political interference. Commissioner (ag) McDonald is on the verge of retirement, and it was perceived as necessary that a hands-on, fearless Commissioner be appointed to succeed him. Both President Jagdeo and Mr Hoyte had agreed on Mr Felix for the post, but that appointment (like so many others) is now hostage to our larger political conflict.
How the knot created by the Parliamentary impasse can be untied, a weary citizenry cannot even begin to work out. However, it is the duty of our politicians to stop vilifiying each other for a change, and exchange proposals (preferably not publicly) for the context in which the whole problem of the parliamentary committees can be negotiated, and hopefully resolved. We desperately need the appointment of the service commissions, so that not only Mr Felix who has an urgent anti-crime mandate, can take up his post, but many others as well.