Last Sunday Commissioner of Police (ag) Leroy Brumell along with Crime Chief Seelall Persaud and some senior officers held an Outreach with members of the Meten-Meer-Zorg community. Given the increase in crime in that area recently, one might have expected that the nation’s most senior policeman would have been accorded something of a testy reception, but no, the audience listened attentively and was very polite, even at question time.
This did not prevent Mr Brumell from delivering himself of some highly contentious remarks, which so far have generated little comment. His views on hanging, of course, did attract immediate attention, but while grossly indiscreet and embarrassing for a government which might seem to be trying to nudge the public in the direction of abolition, they were by no means the most problematical things he gave expression to that day. Many police forces the world over are known from surveys to be in favour of the death penalty, and clearly Mr Brumell feels the same way, but it was hardly the appropriate time or the forum for him to publicise his opinions on that subject.
For all of that it must be said that the decision to hold outreaches is to be commended, and as the Crime Chief noted in his presentation the relationship between the police and the various communities needs to be improved. However, rebuilding the public’s confidence in the police force will take more than this. The acting Commissioner for his part, did exhort residents to come forward and tell the police what they knew about criminal activities, because if they were too scared to do so, crime would fester. It is not that he is wrong about this, it is just that fear of reprisals from bandits extends also to an indirect fear of the police. The public simply does not trust the GPF to observe the rules of confidentiality when its officers are supplied with information, and that has been so for many years. In other words, until the problem of corruption in the police force is confronted, it will be difficult to win back full public confidence.
Given that impediment, it probably means that for the moment a senior officer in an area has to cultivate a relationship with local residents, so that they build up trust in him personally, and relay ‘tip-offs’ to him which they might be disinclined to transmit to other members of the force. Mr Brumell also adverted to the need for witnesses to an incident to be prepared to testify in court. This, of course, relates to the fear of reprisals on the part of potential witnesses, given the fact that the conviction rate here is not as impressive as it could be. While the Commissioner’s exhortation is in order, reform of the justice system will be a slow process which in any case lies outside his purview.
The real problem with Commissioner (ag) Brumell’s address lay in the possible implications it carried for placing the burden of confronting crime on the communities, rather than the police force. He urged them to fight back against criminals – “we have to take back our communities,” he said – telling them they had to “war” with criminals. “Do not be in your home and have people come in to rob you, rape your family and you sit there and do nothing; it’s time to fight,” he was quoted as saying.
This ignores the fact, of course, that nowadays bandits are invariably armed with guns of one sort or another, and most residents are not so armed – or even if they are and their lives are in danger they may have neither the time nor the opportunity to retrieve their weapon. In any case, even if someone is a licensed firearm holder, what are they supposed to do against a bandit who is already in the house and is touting an AK-47?
Presumably in anticipation of this criticism, Mr Brumell turned his attention to licensed firearm holders, who he said had a responsibility to the community to act. “I expect that firearm holders don’t be selfish in their communities… I expect them to come forward,” this newspaper last Monday quoted him as saying. He went on to say that if there were bandits in the area who entered the home of a licensed firearm holder that was sufficient reason for them to fire their weapon. Referring to himself, the Commissioner told his listeners that he would not allow bandits in his home without discharging a weapon. “I will not at any time stand up or be at home and my family in there and I gon just give up that easy,” he said. Mr Persaud, on the other hand, in his remarks emphasized that the firing of a weapon had to be justifiable.
Members of the community who listened to all this naturally wanted to know under what circumstances they could use a gun if they were licensed to hold one, and they received no very clear answer. It was not explained to them that at the simplest level, they can shoot at an intruder, for example, only if their life is immediately threatened, and contrary to what the Police Chief might have suggested, they are not under any legal obligation to use it to help their neighbour.
However, the two most senior policemen in the land did not offer clarification in this regard, with the Crime Chief making reference to the guidelines on the back of the firearms’ licence, and saying subsequently that licensed firearm holders are given training by the police and told what is legal and what is not legal.
Now all of this was most unfortunate. In the first place, the primary onus for protecting the communities cannot be on the communities; their members have no more than the powers of ordinary citizens. Now it so happens that Meten-Meer-Zorg has a community policing group (CPG) which though lacking resources of any kind does conscientiously patrol the village. The week before last they pursued suspected bandits, one of whom at least appeared to be armed with a gun. As they made good their escape, a licensed firearm holder with the CPG fired two shots in the air. At this point the police, who had been called before the CPG was contacted but had not put in an appearance, suddenly materialized. Instead of chasing the suspects they promptly arrested the members of the CPG and locked them up for five hours. In the meantime, the possible bandits escaped.
The Meten-Meer-Zorg residents were not so uncivil as to raise this matter with the Police Chief, but at the very least it suggests an absence of protocols in how the police are to interact with citizens who are trying to protect their communities, as he would like. While Mr Brumell did not say so, it is public knowledge that the police force is seriously under strength and probably does not have the human resources (even if it has the vehicular ones) to run constant patrols through our villages, but the GPF has to address the question of mobile quick reaction squads, and in particular, the very basic issue of answering the telephone, particularly 911 calls, and then responding with dispatch.
Most of all, however, the problem with Mr Brumell’s address was that it appeared to border on advocacy for vigilantism, which is undoubtedly the last impression that he wanted to convey. However, this country has had enough cases of vigilantism in recent times, and the police of all institutions, should not be so opaque in their pronouncements that the message conveyed suggests there now might be a climate where it would be tolerated. It should be added that vigilantism comes about in circumstances where there are no police, or where the police are not functioning as they should. In other words, taking the fight to the criminals can only be the task of the police.