Police must demonstrate commitment to reforms

There is enormous public interest in the security reforms announced by Minister Rohee particularly as it relates to the Guyana Police Service. There is no expectation that things will change overnight. However, given the fundamental reforms on the way, including civilian oversight of some areas and a UK consultancy to oversee administration, succession planning and professionalization, there is a well-founded expectation that there will be an immediate change in the manner with which the police address claims of injustice and public criticisms of their operations. There were three major incidents in recent days which reflect many of the old failings and perverse behaviours which the police would do well to address and which the Minister should take careful note of.

In chronological order, the first of these is the horrific accident at Mon Repos on February 3rd which claimed the lives of two persons. It now seems from photographs taken shortly after the accident that the wrong person has been charged. The discovery is a triumph for the citizen journalist who took the photographs and circulated them to the media. The power and utility of the citizen journalist will grow as a result of the ubiquity of the digital camera and its effortless interface with Facebook and other social media. Cover-up will become an endangered species and not a moment too soon.

What essentially happened is that a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old succeeded in outwitting the police and having someone but the driver be charged. The most basic element of this investigation, the identification of the driver has been bungled by the police.

How the police managed to engineer this is puzzling. One hopes that there was no attempt to ignore the truth. The charging of the 17-year-old a day after the accident only with driving under the influence seemed unusual. The surfacing of the photograph has now exposed the shoddiness of police investigations and points to the need for the Service to trawl social media – the way other police organisations do – for vital information. The sleuths who investigated this case need to be upbraided and the police must now rectify the matter.

The second incident was the shooting to death on Wednesday by police of three men in Prashad Nagar. There is little doubt that the three men had gone to the premises to commit some crime. Things get very blurry thereafter. Was there a shoot-out and did the police have to use deadly force in arresting the situation? The police service that the government is seeking to reform is one that has been badly scarred by years of questionable killings of suspects, excessive force and brutality. The circumstances in which these transgressions have occurred are usually of the type where suspected bandits are cornered in the midst of the commission of a crime and are taken out. Wednesday’s shootings presented similar circumstances.
No one is saying that the lives of the undercover policemen were not in jeopardy in the operation and that they shouldn’t have defended themselves to the hilt.  The question however arises, based on the reports that have filtered out to the media, whether there was any need for the men to be targeted with lethal force and whether one of them had actually begged for his life before being killed. Some of these allegations jar violently with the intended transformation of the police from an organization frequently accused of the unnecessary use of deadly `force’ to one of service. Neither Minister Rohee nor Commissioner Brumell can be oblivious to the fact that they are trying to convince the public that a genuine effort is being made to reform the Service. In that light, the allegations that have been made require a serious enquiry. It is unfortunate therefore that when asked about the allegations, Commissioner Brumell launched into a tirade against the media and evinced no appreciation for the possibility that excessive and undue force was utilized. That attitude will not win high marks from the many monitors who are now carefully scrutinizing the police’s actions during this period of reforms.

Without gainsaying the danger that the undercover policemen could have been in on the day of the operation and the deadly threat posed by bandits in recent times, Wednesday’s incident demands a thorough investigation of the circumstances of the killings. The Police Service has to make a clean break with its past. Its operational deficiencies – as might have been on display on Wednesday – will not be remedied simply because there is a programme in place with that intention. It will require the elite units of the Service undergoing the requisite training for handling all types of stand-offs and other scenarios like Wednesday’s. In the interim, the least that the Service could have done was to recognize the concerns that have been raised and commit to fully investigating them. One presumes that the Office of Professional Responsibility at Eve Leary will be looking at these deaths and that the Police Complaints Authority will also be engaged in this matter.

The third incident is the mindless and savage murder on Wednesday of a schoolboy in Linden allegedly at the hands of a man who had once had a relationship with the boy’s mother. It appears that the police were dilatory in their response and treated the initial report made to them about the attack on the boy cavalierly. Maybe, even with a faster response time the boy’s life might not have been saved. However, the issue is an age-old one for our law enforcers. Numerous reports linger about the unresponsiveness of police stations to crime. Here, the Linden police dealt with a public-spirited citizen and the victim of an earlier assault by the man now charged with murder. Neither of these two persons was impressed with the response.

The Police Service has to recognize very clearly that its primary function is to be at the disposal of the public particularly during emergencies. The response time and the response to the anguished calls for the police to take immediate action to rescue the child must not go unexamined. The divisional commander should seek full details of all reports made about this case and the findings should be delivered to the dead boy’s family and the public.

Genuine reform of the Guyana Police Service has been on the agenda for decades. Given the change that the December 31, 2012 announcements by Minister  Rohee promised, these three events point to the gravity of the weaknesses that enmesh the force and importantly, too, the need for the architects of these reforms to have them recognized and addressed in a serious manner.

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