With his recent elevation, new acting Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud has tried to signal that change was coming to the Guyana Police Force (GPF), promising improved accountability for unlawful killings and unjustified shootings, sustained efforts to end excessive police corruption, and policies that treat citizens with dignity and respect. Though desperately needed in the GPF, that change, it seems, may still be a far way off.

20140104ianaWithin weeks of taking office, Persaud announced a litany of proposed changes in police practices that all read really good in print: sustained efforts to rebuild public trust; a human rights approach to policing; accountability and transparency across police divisions; and reducing crime and violence in our communities. “We have to work on public trust to enhance our operations,” he said at the opening of the Police Officers’ Annual Conference last month, which was held under the theme, ‘Continuing modernisation with special focus on developing public trust and capacity building through partnerships.’

But days after the conference closed, there was a reminder of why public confidence in the GPF continues to wane: a cadet officer removed a fifteen-year-old boy from his home without the consent of his mother and played a game of Russian roulette with him before shooting him in the mouth.

The officer left his duty station at Mahaica, East Coast Demerara and travelled to the city, where he rounded up several other ranks before journeying to Griffith’s East La Penitence Squatting Area home to investigate a robbery committed on a relative. As queried by Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority retired justice Cecil Kennard in a Stabroek News interview earlier this week, “What was he doing at Ruimvedlt when he was based at Mahaica?”

It’s a question the cadet officer should answer publicly after he is arraigned for the unjustified shooting of Alex Griffith or at the very least, a response should be forthcoming from our new Top Cop as regards police policy and whether ranks on or off duty are allowed to station hop to investigate personal matters. More important, are they authorised to leave duty posts in one division and coordinate armed patrols in another while, again, probing personal matters?

The shooting was a dreadful display of violence and impunity which is emblematic of the culture of police violence meted out against poor youths in our society, a culture that the new Top Cop is yet to condemn. We were reminded by this cadet officer and his accomplices of the entrenched policy of appalling and undemocratic policing that Persaud’s predecessors failed to address.

Again and again, civil society and ordinary citizens have criticised the gross abuse of power by members of the force who took an oath to serve and protect yet excessive use of force continues to be exercised in our communities. Likewise, repeated calls have been made for the force to urgently adopt reforms to ensure accountability for unlawful extrajudicial killings, unjustified police shootings and misconduct but to no avail.

As pointed out by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) in a statement on the Griffith shooting, the failure to institute charges in the case is a setback for those who had hoped that Persaud’s new leadership of the police force would have resulted in more stern action against defaulting police officers. “Had charges been laid promptly against all involved, the new leadership of the GPF would have emerged with considerable credibility. What they have in fact achieved is to undermine, at a stroke, their own efforts to create good will in communities, exposing, for example, the initial campaign in Albouystown to be little more than a PR job,” the GHRA said.

Maybe Persaud is not too concerned with the GHRA statement, but he should take note of the fact that people are already dismissing his statements about rebuilding trust and improving accountability, and grouping him with some of his predecessors who abdicated their responsibility in changing the current police culture.

It will take years to build up the public’s trust in the force, but there is room now for the new Commissioner to restore confidence in its operations. The dithering in the Alex Griffith case only serves to further erode the trust and it also chips away at his own credibility.

Prior to his elevation, he seemed to have a genuine interest in human rights and its importance in the development of a new police culture. He had even admitted to police excesses and emphasised a personal commitment to change this.

What we know of our new Commissioner is that he had been in the public eye serving as Crime Chief for many years. Before this recent promotion, he was dismantling criminal gangs across the country. He later turned his attention to police initiatives in communities that to help youth in disadvantaged communities plagued by crime and other ills. The latter focus is the kind of work you would expect from modern policing operations.

During those Crime Chief years, Persaud was also accessible to the press and he appeared open with the public. When he eventually eased into the role of Commissioner, he rolled out ‘Project Impact Albouystown’, a community initiative in which in which the force is seeking to make the area safer through strategic interventions and community partnerships. Whether the Albouystown project was a long planned GPF project or something he was active in pushing remains unclear. But as indicated by GHRA, police efforts in the community are rapidly being reduced to a public relations campaign due to how the Alex Griffith case has so far been handled.

On the one hand, the new Commissioner is saying that he is interested in a culture of cooperation between the police force and our communities and on the other, ranks under his watch, went into a community and tortured then shot a teenage boy because they suspected he might have some information regarding a robbery.

It’s certainly time for the police culture to change and if the new leadership in the force led by Commissioner Persaud doesn’t make a serious effort from day one to promptly investigate matters like the Alex Griffith shooting and bring those responsible to justice, the devastating cycle of police violence will persist.

The force’s leadership, from Commissioner Persaud to the Assistant Commissioners, and Senior Superintendents, should be sending a public message that the mistreatment of citizens, and especially our youth, will not be tolerated and back up such pronouncements with disciplinary action and prosecutions of those officers who violate the law.

 

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