Linden killings and police reforms
That President Ramotar was unable to travel to Linden on Saturday as planned is another sign of how unsure the administration is of itself and incapable when it comes to handling crises. From day one (the killing of the three protesters), the administration should have had a senior level official in Linden offering the necessary assurances no matter how heated the reception was likely to be. This would have helped to ease some of the strain between the two sides and open up back channels to obviate flare-ups and lay the groundwork for the eventual visit of the President via road.
Instead, it was a full 10 days after the killings that outraged Lindeners that President Ramotar planned to be in the town without his staff having secured the necessary arrangements to clear the thoroughfare into the town. After all, the office of the President requires respect and protesters would no doubt have been told that it would have been appropriate for the President to be allowed to address the community and for both sides to then evaluate the next steps. The matter was not helped at all by the confrontational tone from the President’s office when announcing the visit where it was stated that the joint services had been instructed “to remove all barricades blocking the roads and bridges in order to allow unfettered ingress and egress through the Linden Township.” It was the barricading of the town that had won Lindeners the attention that they were seeking for such a long time on electricity and other matters. To tear down the symbol of their protest rather than allowing them to remove it themselves or facilitate an agreement for the Joint Services to do the job was not clever at all. To the contrary it was counterproductive and causes one to wonder about the quality of political and public relations advice that the President is tapping.
It is not only the President’s office that has blundered through this crisis. The police have also performed ineptly. The first sign of this was on the night of the killings where they professed themselves as unable to confirm whether there were any fatalities. Media houses equipped with just cell phones and enterprising reporters were able to establish very quickly what the fatality figure was. No doubt the police were unwilling to commit themselves that night to acknowledging any deaths as it gave them time to think through what had happened and how to manage it. That, of course, ignored the need to disclose as quickly as they could to Lindeners and others what had really transpired that night.
Clearly some senior policeman in the protest theatre or at headquarters in Georgetown should have immediately issued instructions for all police ranks on the scene to be immediately identified and removed to some sort of barracks location and their weapons retrieved for later examination for any discharges and testing to see whether or not there was evidence of gunpowder residues etc on their hands. None of this appeared to have been done and so much time has since elapsed that a commission of enquiry may be unable to meaningfully establish what occurred that night in terms of which personnel fired rounds and may have to content itself with recording the laxities in the force’s operations. The prospect of police investigating police either within the ambit of the Office of Professional Responsibility or the Police Complaints Authority will provide no comfort to the public. It is the Commission of Enquiry or nothing.
Worsening the outlook for the police in this dreadful matter was the appeal last week by the Crime Chief, Mr Seelall Persaud for witnesses to come forward to relate what they know since there were too many “gaps” in the picture that night and this was stalling investigations.
Amid a crowd of hundreds, three people died and at least 20 were injured after the police opened fire and yet Eve Leary is still short of witnesses? The Commissioner of Police, Mr Brumell and his senior officers should take this reticence on the part of the public as yet another expression of no-confidence in the police force. It has happened time and time again. There must have been dozens of people who would have seen enough of the shootings for a detailed picture of what happened to have been composed. Witnesses will however not go to the police and testify about anything that could put them in harm’s way because they generally don’t trust the police and the oppressive shadow of the government in the background. This is more so since they would be testifying to the police about the wrongs of their own brother policemen. In other jurisdictions witnesses would more than likely come forward however the Guyanese public does not repose enough confidence in the police force for this to happen here. The almost plaintive appeal for witnesses will not let the police off the hook this time.
Only a truly independent commission of enquiry composed of respected people immune to the influence of government mandarins will attract a sufficient amount of witnesses.
This brings us again to the crux of the matter that has bedevilled each and every PPP/C government since 1992. The police force is in desperate need of radical reform – root and branch, top to bottom, legislative underpinnings – the entire thing. Whether it was the bungled Monica Reece investigation of 1993, the Symonds report, the prison break of 2002 and the ensuing crime spree, the Disciplined Forces Commission report, the rampage of Roger Khan, the phantom squad, the entrenching of the drug trade or the Lusignan, Bartica and Lindo Creek massacres, PPP/C governments have steadfastly refused to accept that radical police reforms are needed to improve citizen security. What makes it worse is that the only reason why they have refused to address these reforms is to ensure political control of the force. It is not that they don’t believe that radical reforms will vastly improve the force. It is simply that they know that the professionalizing of the force will lose them the ability to direct senior officers and have things steered in their way. A professionalized police force translates into greater security for all and requires the PPP/C to understand that its minions must also be accountable just as the ordinary citizen is.
The government must be pressed to address this matter for once and for all. The force needs to have outside experts who are not tainted at all by the decades of corruption and political intrigue that have afflicted it. As we have said before, this will not be a magical bullet to end crime. Experienced personnel with a professional outlook and implementation of the seminal findings of the Symonds report and the DFC report will however help to steer the force back on the course of service, incorruptibility and respect for law and order which it has veered dangerously from.
Many important opportunities have been lost in embarking on this course not least of which was the UK aid for police reforms which the Jagdeo-led Office of the President frustrated out of existence. It is a vital necessity and the opposition should enter discussions with the government on how such reforms could be factored into this year’s legislative programme and supplemental budgetary allocations.