The professionalism of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and the practices that attend policing in Guyana have long been the subject of intense public discourse. The Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the July 2012 public protests in Linden and the outcomes of those protests including the response of the police provided a separate and independent opportunity to examine aspects of policing practices in Guyana.
In this issue of The Guyana Review we publish a section of the Report of the Commission of Enquiry (paragraphs 168 – 191) that speaks to policing and policing practices including the operational behavior of the police during the Linden protests and essays recommendations for an enhanced police service
168. The evidence of SS Hicken is that “from the 17th of July threats were being issued signaling that there would have been disturbances on the 18th.
169. That information was sufficient to have alerted the police hierarchy to the fact that danger lurked ominously around the corner and that operational initiatives were necessary to prevent it. A reasonable citizen would have expected that the police would have taken control of the access and egress points of the bridge, perhaps before dawn, and would have deployed personnel on the bridge to ensure that protestors could not have dominated the area. This was not done and absence of that type of proactive action gave freedom to the unlawfully inclined.
170. The Tactical Services Unit (TSU) in the Guyana Police Force is charged with the responsibility of inter alia crowd control. A full unit consists of some 32 personnel whilst a Half Unit is comprised of 17 personnel. A Half Unit was deployed to Linden and arrived there at or about 4 a.m. on the 18th of July 2012. Remarkably, the Half Unit was not deployed to the Mackenzie-Wismar Bridge the focal point of the protest until approximately 11:20 hrs. as stated in the evidence of Asst. Supt. Todd, the Unit Commander. That deployment was ordered by SS Hicken the Ground Commander. The TSU stayed a distance of approximately “200 metres away from the protesters on the Bridge” according to Mr. Todd. Further as a result, half of the number of persons who were on the Bridge swarmed the Half Unit, surrounded the Unit, and they began to chant in a loud tone of voice, “the electricity hike is too high. Don’t try to stop us. We are gonna burn the bridge down and paint the town in red.” This was a clear fore-warning as to what was to come. Mr. Todd further testified that at that time “there were about 800 persons standing in the vicinity of the Bridge”.
171. With all that was taking place SS Hicken according to Mr. Todd “returned to the Unit and gave us instructions to enbus into the vehicle and return to the Mackenzie Police Station”. We are not experts in policing but the following seem obvious to us:
1. TSU should have been deployed at the bridge shortly after their arrival in Linden to take control and prevent its blockage;
2. Having regard to the information which Mr. Hicken said was available to him from at least the night before a full unit of the TSU should have been deployed;
3. Based on the threats that were issued in the presence of the TSU and with Mr. Hicken in the vicinity, the TSU should not have been removed.
172. The initial and indeed the subsequent action by the protestors could have been prevented had the police been proactive. It seems clear to us that the training related to crowd control needs to be re-visited and that junior and senior officers need to be the beneficiaries of this.
173. Mr. Todd further testified that “at about 17:55 hrs., SS Hicken called the Half Unit, Assistant Superintendent Stanton, Inspector Williams, Sergeant English, and all other persons at Mackenzie Police Station for a brief. In the brief, he informed us that he was waiting on a telephone call from the Commissioner of Police; that he received information that there were persons being robbed; persons were cooking, using alcohol and all other illegal activities were taking place on the Wismar shore and on the Bridge. Then, he informed Stanton and English to put the Unit on standby.
174. ASP Todd testified that “at about 18:00 hrs. he instructed the Standby Unit and I to report to the Bridge, informing us that he received a cellular phone call that we must clear the Bridge before it got dark. I then briefed the TSU Standby Unit, informing them about the firing orders, Standing Order 18, Paragraph 30 and 31. Also, I gave them specific instructions that they must not engage the crowd without my instructions. I then told the Unit to enbus into force vehicle GLL 3680, a white lorry with green canvas covering the tray.”
175. The police presence at the scene was clearly woefully inadequate and the attempt to take control of the scene at that late hour was inexplicable. The ground command was weak and depended too heavily on long distance discretion and instructions from the Acting Commissioner of Police.
176. There appears to be a real need for training in crisis management. Things were allowed to happen rather than preventing things from happening. There is a need for better co-ordinated planning of operations of this nature.
The use of force
177. There is a clear need for the revision of the use of force policy in order to adopt international best practices.
178. The evidence of Mr. Todd is instructive. He testified before the Commission that “I then went on my telephone. I then went on my cell phone and informed SS Hicken about the behaviour of the protestors. He informed me that my objective was to clear the bridge before it got dark. I continued to use the siren and I spoke through the loudhailer and read the proclamation. Bricks and bottles began to come to the Unit at a rate of two minutes per session, a fast rate, from all angles. Persons on the Unit were hit. I, also, was hit in my head. I then went back on my cell phone and informed Mr. Hicken that the Unit was being attacked with bricks, bottles and other instruments. He instructed me to use tear-smoke and shotgun, which is the SOP to deal with crowd dispersal”.
179. It is to be observed that the attack did not involve firearms and although there is evidence of Mr. Todd hearing what sounded like gunshots these sounds did not come from the crowd in the immediate vicinity of the bridge. Had the police been provided with riot shields there would have been no need to discharge shotguns. It is the case that Mr. Todd who discharged the shotguns did so on the instructions of the absent Mr. Hicken who told him “to continue to proceed and clear the bridge by using the minimal force which (with) the tear-smoke and the shotgun”. Even though Mr. Todd using the “shotgun…discharged a round into the ground to take off the velocity, to scare and chase the protesters who were gathered” this was fraught with danger. Discharging a shotgun is hardly the way to “scare” persons and ought never to have been used in the circumstances. As it transpired several persons were shot, some multiple times resulting in various degrees of injury as shown from the medical certificates which were tendered in evidence. There is no evidence that one shot was discharged at a specific human target who was pelting the police with an object capable of causing death or serious injury. The shots were fired randomly causing injury to whoever was in the path and range of the pellets.
180. Firing in that way in similar circumstances should never be repeated. Even if the use of the shotgun was reasonable, and we do not conclude that it was, a firearm should never be used recklessly or negligently.
181. Based on the foregoing we are of the view that the policy on the use of force should be reviewed and done urgently.
Relationship between the Police and citizens
182. There is no doubt that the relationship between the police and the Lindeners has broken down. We do believe that restoration can be achieved, but it must be approached in a methodical and purposeful way. Community based policing is the way forward. We will not prescribe how this should be implemented. Suffice it to say there are some countries in the Caribbean and others in the international arena with working models which should be studied and adapted for use in Guyana. In Jamaica, for example, neighbourhood watch groups are employed where citizens and police work together in developing local security strategies; community consultative committees exist, again to promote police citizen synergies and so change the dynamics of the police being seen as simply reacting to crime and public order issues rather than being integrated in the community to promote its welfare with full citizen participation.
This approach aids the police in getting reliable information for intelligence purposes, contributes to citizens owning or buying into policies which redound to their benefit, citizens becoming change agents, human rights and human relations being recognized and advanced amongst other measurable benefits.
183. We were made aware that a form of community policing exists, but from what we were told enormous room for expansion and reshaping exists.
184. There is in place in Guyana a Police Complaints Authority but it seems to be constrained by lack of sufficient resources and is not widely known about. Some of the witnesses knew of it, others did not and those who did seemed not to have the requisite confidence in its ability to respond to their complaints notwithstanding the high integrity of those in charge of it. However it must be noted that the Chairman of the Authority had made several requests for independent investigators to be made available to that body but to no avail. In addition, there have been many outreach visits undertaken by him and he has made numerous appearances on television and radio to sensitise the public of the existence, role and functions of the Authority.
185. The police must be held accountable for their behaviour and where abuses occur these should be independently investigated in a professional way and thereafter appropriate action be taken whether through criminal, civil or disciplinary proceedings. Such an authority must have the necessary powers and resources to be effective lest citizens demonstrate no confidence in it and the police treat it with disdain. There is legislation in the Region and in the Commonwealth which could be examined and thereafter appropriate provisions be enacted.
186. Police Forces traditionally resist having independent bodies investigate complaints against their members, nevertheless we recommend that the political will be garnered to provide for this. It works.
187. We got the feeling that a significant number of persons who testified view the police cynically as agents of the government acting solely in the interest of the government and by extension the political party forming the administration. There was no concrete evidence before us to substantiate that view but it is said that perception is nine-tenths of reality. This view can only be changed if there is an insistence on the highest professional behaviour on the part of the police and the government demonstrates that politics and policing cannot be compatible bedfellows. There is nothing more debilitating to proper policing than having political considerations or allegiance influencing the decisions and behaviour of the police to a particular segment of the society which is known or perceived to be antagonistic to a political persuasion. All Guyanese regardless of their political persuasion are entitled to equal treatment under the Constitution and ordinary law of the country. Our observations are intended to deal with the perception and our urging is that the perception be not ignored but that urgent steps be taken to deal with it as if it were a reality.
188. Internationally citizens complain about abuses perpetrated by the police against them. The Lindeners complained bitterly and with justification although the behaviour of some was calculated to create mayhem and generally to break the law. It would serve no useful purposes for us to attempt to as it were re-invent the wheel. It exists.
189. We are of the clear view that the United Nations has adequately provided guidance on how to deal with the pernicious and pervasive practice of human rights abuse.
190. We recommend that the government urgently implements the “Human Rights Standards and Practice for the Police” as developed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, New York and Geneva, 2004.
191. This should form an integral part of the recruit training programme, and for all ranks and officers on-going carousel courses. If the police abide the United Nation’s standards, Guyana Police Force will be transformed into a modern, efficient and professional organization, the envy of all civilized societies.