Poor police training and bad judgement

Expressing ‘sympathy,’ rather than apologising, to the parents of the 16-year-old schoolboy Kelvin Fraser who a policeman killed last month, Minister of Home Affairs Mr Clement Rohee confessed that elements of the Guyana Police Force displayed poor training and “bad judgement” in their duties.

Mr Rohee proposed that training programmes for recruits will be “re-evaluated and upgraded with a view to improving and enhancing them.” Coming from the Minister who has been responsible for the Police Force and for law enforcement for nearly four years, this is an astonishing admission. It raises questions as to why the Minister has allowed mis-training and mis-behaviour to fester for so long. It also raises doubts about whether he is prepared to do what is necessary to solve the problem.

Extra-judicial killings by the Police Force are not a recent occurrence and Mr Rohee has had a long time to stamp out the crime. But it is delusive to think that improving the quality of training of recruits at the Felix Austin Police College can extirpate the crime of unlawful shooting.

Less than a month after the Fraser killing, for example, policemen came close to killing other youths through reckless shooting in the densely-populated Ruimveldt ward of Georgetown. Osafi Johnson, a 17-year-old, was shot in his shoulder and foot and Dexter Bentick “who was in the vicinity” was also shot by the police.

The shooting started, according to the report carried by this newspaper, after a member of a patrol of policemen who claimed to have been pursuing the wanted man Tyrone ‘Cobra’ Rowe shouted “look he deh dey, look he dey deh, shoot he now.” Residents reported that over twenty shots were fired. Several spent shells were found on the roadway and bullet holes were seen in fences afterwards.  After the barrage, the policeman who shot Johnson reportedly shouted to his colleague that “we shoot the wrong man!”

The Police Force issued an official bulletin implying, implausibly, that the anti-crime patrol actually “confronted ‘Cobra’ and a group of five other men [but] on seeing the police, ‘Cobra’ and two of the men began running, one of whom opened fire on the police.”  The police returned fire, shooting Johnson. Eyewitnesses refuted the police claim that the victim had a pistol and ammunition in his possession.

These two shooting incidents – the killing of Fraser and the wounding of Johnson and Bentick – indicate that there is a misperception and misapplication of legitimate use of lethal force by the police. The crimes did not occur out of ignorance of the law or a lack of lectures on Human Rights at the Police College. The Force possesses clear ‘rules of engagement’ that define the circumstances under which weapons can be used legitimately.

The real causes of the problem are the spurious doctrine of ‘brute-force policing’ advocated by some officials, the culture of permissiveness by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the indulgent management by Police Headquarters and the institutional weakness of the Police Complaints Authority. Policemen seem to have no fear that they would be prosecuted or punished for unlawful shooting.

Policemen do not need more lectures. They need the Minister of Home Affairs to implement the specific recommendation of the Disciplined Forces Commission to provide the Police Complaints Authority with a team of trained investigators who are independent of the Police Force. This will empower the Authority to bring charges against delinquent policemen before the courts. The certain prospect of prosecution and punishment should give trigger-happy policemen something to think about before they shoot the next unarmed youth.

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