The culture of the police force is not changing

On Wednesday night, a 15-year-old boy, Alex Christopher Griffith was shot in his mouth allegedly by a policeman who at last word was under close arrest. The Guyana Police Force has so far not provided an alternative story and that will be difficult considering that the boy had been marched off by a group of policemen, shortly before the shooting, without him being accompanied by one of his relatives.

It is more than likely that the alleged shooter will end up before the court on a charge of attempted murder or perhaps a far lesser charge if past experience is anything to go by. Even if the shooter is slapped with the most serious charge possible and there is a successful prosecution – another process fraught with numerous loopholes and weaknesses – no one in society should be feel even the slightest measure of comfort. For, Alex Griffith undoubtedly came within a whisker of dying that very night, will now face lengthy and costly rehabilitation and will be scarred forever by the events of last Wednesday.

Apart from that tragic reality, there is another that starkly faces both the police force and the general public: the barbaric and inhumane culture that law enforcement is steeped in shows no sign of waning notwithstanding the endless streams of hifalutin rhetoric from the Home Affairs Ministry and the force itself. There is a chronic culture of backwardness and brutality in the police force that will not be extirpated unless the entire force is fundamentally reformed. This common sense demand by the public has been denied by the PPP/C since 1992 with the result that the malignancy of cruelty is now endemic and hopelessly so.

Just days after the Annual Police Officers Conference with its lofty aspirations and hints at redemptive action, the new acting Commissioner of Police, Seelall Persaud has a perfect opportunity to critically examine the dark behaviour of the force and to decide how to begin rooting it out.

What is the impetus that drives any policeman or woman, alone or in the company of others, to descend on the home of an alleged 15-year-old robbery witness in the dead of night and to demand his presence by the utterance of a nickname?

What is it that inspires any part of the force to descend en masse – 12 at a time based on Alex Griffith’s mother’s account – for the purpose of demanding to speak to a witness to a robbery? This was no drug lord’s lair except that the police are apparently unable to search for witnesses in these areas.

What moves any member of the force to demand that a supposed 15-year-old witness should accompany him/her in the dead of night to who knows where?

What twisted thinking enables any one member of the police force, let alone around a dozen, to march off with a 15-year-old, no matter how brave the teenager is, without the permission of his guardian and, in this case, after duping her into believing that she would be able to accompany her child?

What seizes policemen to brutalize a 15-year-old “witness” in his own yard and in front of his mother and then casually tell the mother to collect her child at the Brickdam Police Station?

Crucially, what is the mindset in any group of police that would permit one of their number to draw a weapon and fire it at a 15-year-old “witness” to a robbery just moments after being taken from the protection of his home and clearly not being a threat to anyone?

The sequence of events is unimaginable and utterly reprehensible. Given the now high expectations that the government, Minister Rohee and the police directorate have created in the public as a result of the hype over reforms, there should be commensurate seriousness applied to this probe and it shouldn’t be conducted by the police or the Office of Professional Responsibility. Perhaps, the government should importune one of the commissioners in the Rodney probe to spend half a day getting to the bottom of this abomination.

So far the police have spoken about one of their number being under close arrest. From any reading of the events as related by the mother and so far uncontested, each and every one of the policemen and women who were on that mission on Wednesday night should be the subject of this investigation and questioned exhaustively on what transpired before they begin trying to cover for each other and the whole investigation descends into farce.

The grievous assault on the 15-year-old is far from being the exception over the years in relation to allegations levelled at the force over the treatment of youth and the avoidance of protocols related to juveniles. None of the human rights education or the entreaties for professional policing seem to be percolating through the force. It was only days before this heinous shooting that the police force was lectured by human rights activist Mike McCormack about the need for more humane policing with the needs of communities – like that of the 15-year-old boy – being place at the centre of the force’s operations as opposed to antagonizing them.

McCormack told the police officers “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 had also stressed how important it was for the police to cultivate a positive image in communities.

“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”, he argued.

Clearly, the officer under whose command the policemen from Wednesday night’s shooting came under was unable to impart this message to his charges.

Twenty-two years of PPP/C governance has thrown up cases of outright murder, the grossest violations of human rights and innumerable other obscenities compliments of the disciplined services. Notwithstanding the enormous challenges that policemen and women face, these outrages cannot continue. The government and the legislature must be pressed to take decisive action to end this scourge.

 

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