The police get an ‘F’ for image management

The shabby image of the Guyana Police Force is, arguably, its single biggest problem. Time and again, there have been occurrences that point unerringly to a sharp departure by some members of the force from adherence to the motto of “Service and Protection.”

The list of charges – many grounded in fact – that have been made against members of the force is lengthy; it includes extra-judicial executions, serving as enforcers for criminal operations, providing private security services for well-placed individuals, serving as intermediaries in corrupt transactions, and overseeing drug-related transactions; the list goes on and on.

There is, too, the matter of the recent Merai revelations regarding what he claimed were instances of police involvement in various forms of both inappropriate and criminal behaviour, including protecting urban drug blocks. Then there are death squads some of which were widely perceived to have connections to officialdom.

These charges have sullied the image of the GPF, so much so that that a yawning gulf of mistrust has grown between the citizenry and the police. More than that, the disconnect between the police and sections of the citizenry continues to seriously hamper the ability of the force to pursue its law-enforcement responsibilities effectively. It is, to say the least, a decidedly untenable situation.

Of course it has to be said that there are a number of good, decent, hard-working policemen and women who do their best to be worthy of the uniforms they wear. Unfortunately, the indiscretions of their colleagues have meant that they too must bear the shame of a shabby institutional image.

What has also not helped is the seeming indifference of the GPF to the management of its image. Some members of the Force have reportedly become preoccupied with a sort of do-you-know-who-I-am posture, a part-bullying, part-shakedown approach that so often passes for policing. It happens, sometimes, at police stations, where authority is pedalled like fish in a marketplace and if you are on the wrong side of the law even some of those privileges to which you are entitled might cost you.

The GPF’s image has been rendered progressively worse by the fact that it appears both insensitive to and incapable of managing that image. Image management is a public communications-related discipline that takes account of public opinion as a strategic centre of gravity in the dissemination of information. It departs from connotations of propaganda and offers a fresh start to telling the truth and ‘getting the word out,’ so to speak,  in order to counter perceptions that might hurt the image of the force.  The GPF has failed to embrace a policy-making system that engages cultural awareness and understanding as tools in the fight to burnish its image.

There are several schools of thought as to why the image of the force is as bad as it is, and why, moreover, it appears to be growing worse. Two of these will suffice for the purpose of this editorial. The first has to do with competence. It postulates that the force has never really worked to build a strong public communications capacity and that at any rate its existing Public Relations Department, apart from comprising undertrained and in some instances entirely untrained staff, functions under the closest possible scrutiny of the police high command so that the unit itself plays no professional role in shaping either the style of the content of the force’s public utterances, but merely serves as a purveyor of information crafted from above.

The second, more cynical school of thought suggests that image management is of little concern to the GPF given the fact that it never really has to account publicly for what it says anyway. This school of thought holds that in the absence of serious public enquiries into allegations of police indiscretions and unlawful acts, during which enquiries public statements by the force are bound to come under sharp scrutiny and exacting enquiry, the force really has no need to assume anything more than an anything-will-do posture towards the tone and content of its public utterances.

In a sense the two limitations are closely related since, presumably, if the police were required to be more accountable to the public they would treat more seriously with taking the necessary measures to ensure that their image management machinery was more competent and that their public pronouncements could withstand scrutiny.

Both sets of weaknesses have been glaringly apparent in the handling of the official response to what, from various accounts, were serious acts of indiscretion committed by police a week ago during a public demonstration.  If the sight of protestors hurt and bruised from volleys of rubber bullets shot and them by police, and terrified schoolchildren covering their faces, apparently in an effort to avoid the worst effects of what they thought was teargas, were bad enough, what was no less unpalatable was the revelation that an incident that might well have triggered a riot in the city that day had not been authorized by either the Ministry of Home Affairs or the police high command. That, surely, drifted the matter into the realm of the bizarre since, arguably, official attempts to exonerate both the Home Affairs Ministry and the police high command left the force itself vulnerable to charges that at some point in time responsibility for police handling of last Tuesday’s demonstration had simply been left in the hands of ‘loose cannon.’  If that is what the official pronouncements seek to say then they reflect an altogether unpardonable lack of concern for the image of the force.

No less damaging to the force’s image was a senior police officer’s official description of the circumstances of last Tuesday as “unfortunate,” a choice of language that might in itself be deemed unfortunate since it provides no coherent official ‘take’ on the rubber bullets incident.

It is at its own peril that the force continues to demonstrate, on the one hand, serious professional shortcomings in its ability to manage its image effectively, and, on the other, a seeming unmindfulness of the condition of that image in the first place; and unless it begins to take remedial action, sooner rather than later – that is to say to pay far more attention to the quality of its relationship with the citizenry (which is much of what image management is about), it will continue to sink deeper into the quicksand of public opprobrium from which vantage point its job can only become more difficult.

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