Restoring confidence in the police
February 2, 2003
In an interview with Stabroek News' Managing Editor Patrick Denny last Wednesday, President Bharrat Jagdeo launched one of his periodic salvos against critics of the GPF. He criticised those political forces - including some media - which he claimed believed they could attack the government by going after the police or its human rights record. Among other things, he cited this newspaper's reporting of shootings by members of the force as helping "to break down confidence in the police."
The people of Guyana are not quite as gullible or as unobservant as the President would like to believe, and they hardly need to read our newspaper reports to lose confidence in the GPF. While most people may have been spared the trauma of being witnesses to police shootings, the population in general is not without direct experience in the matter of the police force. A fair proportion of urban citizens, at least, have had some encounter with the culture of the 'raise,' and that alone is sufficient to undermine any institution's credibility.
A fair proportion of citizens too, have seen first-hand the vulgarity and even brutishness with which certain members of the force - especially some of those belonging to the TSS - conduct themselves. And an awful lot of people have interacted with officers in police stations and elsewhere and have a pretty good idea, therefore, of what the defects and deficiencies of law enforcement are.
And does the President seriously believe that the people of Guyana have not noticed that the police have not had too much success against the bandits, or that they are unaware of the evidence which emerged from the Thomas Carroll case in the United States concerning certain officers of the TSS? Does the President really think that a revelation about police officers being hired by criminals and committing illegal acts won't have a detrimental effect on public confidence in the force?
Of course the President will say that all of this has nothing to do with alleged extra-judicial killings, but it does. Where corruption is endemic in a force (which is a different thing from saying all officers are corrupt - something that is definitely not the case here), then the police become a law unto themselves, and breaches will occur at all levels because officers will not be constrained by the external legal framework. Ultimately, the problems of the Guyana Police Force are problems of substance, not of image as the President insists on maintaining, and when those problems of substance are addressed the image problem will start to resolve itself.
The question of the reportage given by this newspaper to police shootings was addressed within the article in which the President's remarks were quoted. Suffice it to say here that the head of state has been remarkably poorly briefed both about Stabroek News' coverage of specific cases, as well as the principles governing its reporting of the issue in general.
Some larger comments on the matter, however, might be in order. The first is that the President's trust in the accuracy of police versions of events may be touching, but it is not necessarily well-founded. Aside from the inconsistencies and plain faulty information contained in some individual releases (assuming official statements are forthcoming at all), there is the question of them taken as a whole, and the large percentage which claim that a victim of a police shooting attacked armed officers with a knife, a cutlass, or similar implement. For the average citizen it is simply not credible that so many young people, however criminal their intent, are so ignorant as to believe that they have any chance in an attack on an armed officer when the only weapon they have at their disposal is a knife.
Then there are the general statistics of police killings in a population of this size, the import of which has not been lost on the international agencies, even if it has been lost on President Jagdeo.
The head of state has to understand that law-abiding Guyanese are most anxious that we should have a professional, effective police force, and that those of them who raise questions about the GPF's performance are not harbouring some subterranean anti-Government motive. They criticise the police because they perceive there are things wrong which should be put right in order that we can have the kind of law enforcement agency which we would all like to see.
At the moment there is enormous sympathy for the GPF because it has lost so many members, but that does not mean that reform should not be attempted now. In fact, now is the time to work on changes, so that the force can respond more effectively to the current crisis. As it becomes more professional in its operations, then the public will become more trusting, and the intelligence which it so desperately needs in order to do its job will gradually be more forthcoming.
No one expects the head of state publicly to castigate the police as he did the army recently; he is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and for a variety of reasons that approach is not appropriate. However, in diplomatic language he needs to acknowledge public concern about the modus operandi of some members of the GPF, and reassure people that he is committed to ensuring that things change. By attacking those who raise concerns, he is sending an unfortunate signal that he is not as committed to police professionalism as he should be. This is undoubtedly not the case, but he needs to be aware of the unintended impression he is creating.
Given the current culture, the temptation for the police to take revenge, even on petty criminals, for the losses the force has sustained must be enormous. Whatever the psychological pressures, however, the Commander-in-Chief must understand that insisting on a faithful adherence to the law of the land on the part of our protectors, is a critical step in restoring public confidence in them.