Still no fundamental change in police force

More than 10 months into a new security initiative dramatically announced on the final day of last year by the Minister of Home Affairs, the citizens of this country remain besieged by all sorts of vicious and frightening crime and are unable to see even slivers of light. It is unsurprising given the penchant of this government for tokenism and opportunistic initiatives. It is in this light that Minister Rohee’s announcement of a stream of reforms and training initiatives would have been seen by sections of the public. The ceremoniously unveiled raft of measures was unhinged from the fundamental reform of the Guyana Police Force which would have given it a fighting chance of making inroads into serious crime.

So without this key ingredient, this year has witnessed all of the horrific criminal excrescences: vigilante killings, the gunning down of `hit’ targets in bars and elsewhere, wanton lawlessness and criminality in the mineral-bearing regions, clear signs of continued cocaine trafficking without the interception of the big players, gun-running, domestic violence, unchecked piracy leading to fatalities, brutal murders for which there are no answers and everything else in between.

Given this cavalcade of gory and spine-tingling crime, the government and Mr Rohee were left with few options. They had to come big even though both must realize that at some point there will be nothing left to take out of the hat and the bankruptcy, ineptitude and the ineffectiveness of the administration would be fully exposed.

Out of the blue came the announcement that Cabinet had given its blessings for a Special Weapons and Tactics Unit. The public had hardly caught its breath when it was disclosed by the Office of the President that the acting Commissioner of Police, Mr Leroy Brumell would be confirmed in his position following consultations between President Ramotar and Opposition Leader Granger. Neither of those disclosures will have a serious impact on crime and the particular problems facing the country.

If the SWAT unit was going to be a potent weapon in the fight against crime then it would have long been in place. Indeed, it had been spoken about by the said Minister Rohee and former President Jagdeo for many years. A SWAT unit has its uses in specialized circumstances like hostage takings, high-voltage stand-offs and crimes which have a longer run time and demand tactical planning. There aren’t too many of those here. The recent home invasions which have led to mindless murders and the execution-style hits will not be intercepted by a SWAT unit or investigated to finality by it. So the purpose of its introduction now can only be to create a feint.

It is never good practice, although this government and its predecessors have been shameful exponents of it, to have senior functionaries for too long in acting positions as they become vulnerable and make themselves vulnerable. The confirmation of Mr Brumell will bring some stability to the top and diminish uncertainty although his mandatory retirement is not far away and there will be speculation as to what will happen thereafter. One must, however, remember the genesis of Mr Brumell’s preferment. He was elevated to the acting position as a result of a most serious rape scandal ensnaring the late Police Commissioner Mr Henry Greene. Mr Brumell entered a position, which through no fault of his, was thoroughly discredited and marked down in the public eye as a result of the scandal and other problems in past years. Mr Brumell’s elevation in itself will not restore any of the lost prestige of that office. He has much work to do if he is to repair the damage done.

That is really where the challenge for the government and Mr Rohee lies. It has been stated umpteen times by a multitude of persons at various fora. Policing has to get back to the basics with a humane face to win the hearts and minds of the people.

The confirmation of Mr Brumell and the looming spectre of the SWAT unit will not yield the necessary intelligence from the ground, support from the public and willing witnesses. What will win public support for the force is disciplined, effective and determined policing. There is little sign that that has been engineered in the last 20 years of PPP/C governance let alone the last 10 months. Yet that is the only way the police have a fair chance of succeeding.

When that has been addressed, the professionalizing of the force has to be given the fullest attention. Corruption and a ravaged esprit de corps have reduced the reliability and trustworthiness of the force. Yet, the architects of the putative reforms continue to rely on the same pool of resources for key and sensitive positions. It will be impossible to introduce a new culture of incorruptibility and rectitude in this milieu. Conditions precedent to this should include the hiring of personnel from outside of the force, a review of emoluments, a shaking up of the hierarchy of the force, introduction of a fine-tuned code of conduct and intensified training.

It is these things which should then banish inanities like nearby police stations and outposts not responding to serious and noisy crimes, the rude answering of phones at stations or not at all, the declaring that there were no police to respond to the scene of the crime or no vehicle to transport them to the scene. In the case of the latter,  victims have had to dispatch their own transport to the stations.

Once this has been addressed then searing shortcomings like the lack of skilled investigators and the absence of high-tech tools in the areas of ballistics, DNA and forensic analysis can be addressed. A crime lab will soon be ready for launching but will still not be capable of DNA analysis that has become standard in police work. The rate at which police cases are thrown out at the level of the magistrate’s and high courts reflects the poor outturn of ballistic and other analyses. No force can function effectively without these and produce the needed results. It is clear for all to see from the unsolved crimes this year that the police are not delivering results. Even where the police supposedly have access to modern equipment there is no sign of progress. In all of the years that closed circuit television cameras have been in place there is no known successful resolution of any major crime as a result of the use of the CCTV images. Indeed, what is known is that the images are not high quality and the cameras may not be properly oriented. Furthermore, the shadowy controls over the CCTV cameras raise vital questions about who is indeed in charge of these cameras and if the police force does have uncompromised access to these images. The abstruse intelligence apparatus that the government has established needs to be accountable so that the public is assured that it is not being misused.

For all these reasons and many others, it would be insensible for the government and the Ministry of Home Affairs to believe that the reforms announced and the two recent announcements will lead to positive transformation of the force.  To the contrary, there is the risk that the force will overreact in response to public sentiment. There have been several recent shoot-outs by the police with suspects, the most recent being on Saturday, which have called into question the use of deadly force.

Fundamental change is needed in the force and also at the ministry if there is to be any real hope of transformation.

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