Policing needs democratic orientation

 – McCormack tells annual officers conference

Human rights activist Mike McCormack says the Guyana Police Force (GPF) needs a democratic orientation which will transform its negative image and prise it away from the militaristic way it is viewed by society.

Addressing last week’s annual officers conference, McCormack, Co-President of the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), noted that efforts around a decade ago to transform the image of the GPF were not sustained and he set out a new pathway that should be followed.

The first principle of democratic policing was what McCormack des-cribed as `downward responsiveness’ to the public rather than `upward responsiveness’ to the political regime.

“The monolithic political control exercised by the Minister of Home Affairs – as currently empowered by the Police Act – is inappropriate for accounting more flexibly to the multiple audiences to which they (the police) are accountable, namely Parliament, the media, the judiciary, complaints mechanisms and local communities. In other words the principle of accountability to the civilian power is retained, but the manner in which it is exercised is brought into line with a more modern, democratic concept of policing,” McCormack posited.

He said that an institution such as the GPF which needs to respond significantly to local concerns, requires more de-centralized management, greater discretion in relation to decision-making and some authority over local financing.

The second major principle for democratic policing, according to McCormack, is that it needs a more vibrant, democratic local Govern-ment structure within which to operate.

“The police cannot function democratically in the decadence that presently passes for local government,” he charged.

McCormack also pointed to the long-standing tradition of highly centralized political parties across the board which works against devolving powers away from Cabinet to lower levels of the political establishment.

Fourthly, he argued that the current model of community policing needs a radical revamping. Rather than the GPF shaping itself to meet the community’s needs, he said that community policing presently recruits members of the community into a policing culture which is highly centralized, ultimately subject to the minister and mired in low-level policing skills.

He said that every community in the country has un- and under-utilized skills, many of which could be marshalled in a model of policing focused on problem-solving strategies under appropriate management. In this configuration, the police would be willing to share responsibility, accept criticism and share power.

He cited several challenges to this model:

– skepticism, particularly in poor communities which have experienced excessively forceful policing.

– fears of reprisals for working with the police.

– insufficient resources for a successful transition to policing with the community.

Welcoming the recent effort by the police to establish better relations between the GPF and Albouystown, McCormack said the GHRA has a long-standing commitment to support democratic policing. He adverted to a decade of cooperation between the GHRA and the Felix Austin Training School which he said saw the creation of training programmes designed to promote democratic policing concepts.

He argued that human rights and democratic practices have to be placed at the core of policing.

“Human rights and democratic practice can no longer be viewed as an ‘add-on’, they are central to modern policing. All aspects of policing – investigations, arrest procedures, use of force, recruitment and relations with communities – have to be reviewed from the new perspective of democracy and human rights. The wide-ranging implication of a shift to democratic policing extends to recruitment and the need to screen out elements which are hostile or unsuited to this new approach to policing,” he asserted.

Earlier in his presentation he had declared that the future of the GPF would be shaped by the way in which human rights is integrated into police practice and policy. He also posited that a positive image in the community is the most potent weapon to fight crime and the most effective response to inappropriate political interference. It also crucial to attracting recruits from a range of backgrounds, in intelligence gathering and mobilizing witnesses for effective prosecution.

“Everyday contact with the police in villages and neighbourhoods more defines the image of the police than what they see on TV or read in newspapers. The aged or the person with disabilities, the person lost and in need of direction – particularly if she is female – presently do not look to the police to assist them. As for … emergency calls, the less said the better. Small, everyday encounters shape opinions of the police force as a whole and determine the degree of cooperation the police can expect from citizens. The ‘bad apple’ explanation of corrupt policing is only believable against personal experience of good policing. Conversely, if personal experience of policing is negative, we are disposed to believe all police are that way inclined,” McCormack declared.

Continuing his examination of the relationship between the GPF and the community, McCormack turned to one of the areas of major dissatisfaction, the question of domestic and sexual violence against women. He said that the majority of these cases have a history known to the people living in the community and if police stations were citizen-friendly and staffed by well-trained officers knowledgeable about the law and accessible to members of the community, significant inroads into the prevention of some of these deadly incidents can be made.

“However, police stations, rather than a resource for strengthening community relations with the police, project an image of the police surrounded by hostile communities kept at bay by barbed wire, high walls, and a barracks-room culture. None of which is conducive to the kind of relationship required to build trust and encourage access to the police by members of the community. Community policing as currently practiced is viewed as an ‘add on’ to ‘real’ policing, a soft option, policing on the cheap,” he stated.


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