Violence and corruption in the police force can no longer be classified as allegations. They are real and are now an integral part of the culture of the police force and policing in Guyana. The sooner the authorities accept that these are chronic and systemic problems in the police force, the quicker there will be a serious attempt at a solution. No such attempt has yet taken place, even though modest efforts at ‘reforms’ have been made. But these have been attempted only reluctantly, after much public pressure and as an attempt to soothe public opinion. When public rage overflows, such as after the shootings in Middle Street, the public is offered the creation of a SWAT team. But the danger now exists that the police force will become so enmeshed and so entrenched in violence and corruption, that systems to protect these will take on a life of their own within progressively higher reaches of the police force.
Let us be clear. The vast majority of officers, and many of those lower down, are good, honest and dedicated policemen who are revolted by excesses. The police force still attracts cadets of quality who go on to become good policemen. But subsisting right alongside this quality is an established mindset, which violates the fundamental principles of policing and of morality.
There is a culture that exists in policing, as in many other professions, all over the world. It is a culture that sees crime as the enemy and the alleged criminals as the perpetrator, defender and protector of what the policeman is trained to prevent. Training and strong hierarchical systems in the past prevented the culture of violence and corruption from exploding.
Since this culture began to escalate in the early 1970s, police violence and corruption began to escalate and take root. At that time resources to the police force began to be progressively reduced, crime detection declined which was directly responsible for a corresponding increase in police violence and corruption. That is why the argument of some African rights activists that policemen kill Black youth on behalf of an ‘Indian’ government is so much bull. The systematic killing of Black youth started and grew into an established pattern when what some would describe as an ‘African’ government was in office for 25 years.
In the early 1980s I was elected as a member of the Bar Council, which is the executive of the Guyana Bar Association. I served on that body for 11 years, holding various executive positions. One of the dominant issues which engaged our attention over the entire period was police violence against suspects, including shootings. We campaigned hard against these atrocities and met more than one Commissioner of Police on the issue.
The PPP leadership fully supported the Guyana Bar Association’s activities on police violence and frequently issued statements condemning it. However, as soon as the government changed in 1992 the PPP fell silent on the matter of police violence. It became impossible for an understanding of the rights of suspects to be injected into or to take root in the culture of violence and corruption. I know that efforts have been made but not consistently and purposively enough to be make a difference.
The current Minister of Home Affairs does not seek to defend violence or corruption in the police force. But the government’s efforts at reforms have been tentative at best. The publicly known corruption and episodes of violence suggest that no measurable success has been achieved in eliminating these scourges. This is not surprising in the absence of root and branch reform of a structural nature devised by serious professionals and the elimination of political interference in the running of the police force. Just as much as there is a police culture, there is a political culture. Political interference did not start with the PPP. It was devised and implemented by the PNC, which is responsible for the commencement and evolution of what transpires in the police force today.
There has been no known evidence that the PPP intends to break with the past and relinquish its emphasis on control of the police force. This was on public display when the previous government rejected the British proposals in about 2009, which were devised after extensive consultations by a Commonwealth appointed team of security officials appointed by the British. The project involved some measure of accountability to be assessed by British police officials attached to the police force. This and other measures were rejected by the Government of Guyana as it would have undermined political influence in the police force. Reforms to the police force and political influence in its business are like water and oil. They cannot mix. It is either one or the other.
The public would like to see a different kind of police force. It would like to see one where corruption and violence are eliminated and the rights of the citizens, whether suspect or victim, are protected. The public continues to regard the police station as the first stop when confronted with crime. Much of the police force continues to serve the Guyanese people with courage and success, as in the recent recovery of the stolen baby. Officers daily confront dangerous criminals and lay their lives on the line, which they sometimes lose. But the time for action on the continuing violence and corruption in its ranks has arrived. The time for excuses is over.