In his column in this newspaper last Wednesday, Dr Henry Jeffrey compared the murder rate in Guyana, firstly, with countries in South America which have a high incidence, and then with the largest members of Caricom because they are more similar to Guyana. This was in response to what he called the “piecemeal quarterly statistics” of the Guyana Police Force which do not prove anything, and he gave short shrift to their claim that “social intervention programmes” with their youth focus, coupled with “intelligence-led operations” had made a positive impact during the third quarter of the year as compared with the second.
Dr Jeffrey noted that with the exception of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana’s homicide rate had increased more than that of any of the larger countries in the twelve years between 2000 and 2012, and one must presume that among the reasons for this – domestic violence cases aside − are the proliferation of guns and the exponential growth of the narcotics trade, which itself has facilitated the importation of certain types of weaponry. No one has heard the term ‘choke and rob’ for many years; nowadays it is all about banditry and gunmen. The language itself, therefore, has been adjusted to reflect the new criminal reality.
What were once lesser crimes of being held up with a cutlass or a knife where no physical injury was involved − provided no resistance was offered, that is − have now metamorphosed into a far more dangerous form of armed robbery, not infrequently involving murder. Citizens muse on the fact that after being given all the money and jewellery which has been demanded, gunmen will still then cold-bloodedly shoot a householder. And even if no shots are fired, it is unusual for the victims to escape without a severe beating. The answer to the mystery in many cases may lie in the fact that the men wielding the guns are high on drugs. In any event, the traffic in narcotics has brought in its wake a peculiarly savage and sadistic culture. Add to this the violence that has its stranglehold on the mining areas of the interior, and the public is not mistaken in believing that the world they have always known is really not as safe as it used to be.
Now none of this is something that the police themselves do not already know, just as they are also aware of the permeability of our borders through which the drugs and weapons come, so the issue is why they have failed to make the kind of impact on the situation that some of the other territories have done. The geographical challenges, it is true, for a country like this one are infinitely greater than, say, for an island like Barbados, but still one might have expected in the last few years a more impressive dent would have been made on the serious crime rate in general and on murder in particular.
Perhaps the thing that has most undermined the efficacy of the police force is that it has become associated with corruption in the popular mind, so that members of the public do not trust it. Intelligence-led policing, to which the most senior officers of the GPF like to refer, is simply impossible in a context where citizens will not contact them with information and will not even admit to being witnesses to a crime, making the building of a case for prosecution very problematic. And there are still enough instances of the beating, or in some cases, the torture of suspects coming to light to suggest that the main strategy favoured by the police continues to be the extraction of a confession, sometimes by illegal means.
Changing the approach to investigations requires leadership from the top down; the police force is a hierarchical structure which responds to orders from above, and whatever techniques are laid down in a given situation would need to be systematically enforced and would require constant monitoring.
There is also the problem that the public perceives the police as incompetent. They are not all incompetent, of course, but for a population exposed to the forensic and investigative techniques of overseas forces on TV, the Guyana police appear especially unversed in the ways of professionalism, never mind a scientific approach. There is, of course, the matter of the quality of the recruits, but in an institution where the wages are low, the temptations for illicit salary augmentation considerable and the consequences for surrendering to temptation far from inevitable, it is not really surprising that nowadays the best and the brightest hardly see the police as providing a future career. In a country with the problem of a major brain drain, the police are competing for tolerably educated recruits with every other agency, public or private, in the country.
In fairness, however, the blame for the failure of the police to deliver does not lie only at their door; much of the responsibility for what has gone wrong lies with the politicians. In the first place this government has never felt the confidence in an African-dominated force which would allow it to function truly professionally. Instead, its esprit de corps and morale have been undermined by political interference and the fragmentation which has come on the heels of this. This administration is obsessed with a replay of the 1960s, and the fear that the PNC could at some point use the security forces for a political end. The problem is that one cannot weaken a police force for political reasons, and then expect it will perform its traditional functions in the way that it should.
In addition, the government itself has tolerated short-cuts to dealing with crime, if not tacitly actually encouraging these. Consequently, particularly in the first decade-and-a-half of its administration, it would not move against extra-judicial killing, and refused to disband the notorious ‘Black Clothes’ Squad. In other words, it turned its back on a professional police force. In addition, it left the force grossly under-resourced, a situation which has improved a little in more recent times, possibly because of the complaints of its own constituency. However, it has also given resources to the Community Policing Groups, which do not possess the powers of the police and whose performance has been highly variable. Inevitably, therefore, they will be seen as a competing entity by the GPF which has qualified for special favours for political reasons.
As for confronting corruption, there has to be the political will as well as the intention on the part of the police hierarchy not to allow this particular canker to fester.
It has to be said too that the technical capacity for more sophisticated investigations depends in the first instance on a government prepared to invest the resources. While a forensic lab has recently been opened, it cannot undertake DNA testing, a tool so crucial to the solving of serious crime and more particularly murder. Of course, the city is festooned with government-installed CCTV cameras, although it has yet to be demonstrated how these have made the population more secure. The one major advance is in the fingerprinting department, but it has to be remarked that it is extraordinary the administration took so long to introduce this innovation.
And as for our borders which have been so accommodating to the importation of drugs and guns, those fall fully within the responsibility of any government. Two of our frontiers are particularly sensitive for other reasons, yet in twenty-two years the government has not managed to craft a coherent border policy, let alone a hinterland policy reconciling all the conflicting interests at play there. It is within these frameworks that security needs have to be assessed, and decisions made about the deployment of police and joint services resources.
Dr Jeffrey is of the view that the regime “is caught in a structural condition of sub-optimality” where the police force is concerned, and that its efforts at crime-fighting “will be extremely restricted” unless it is prepared to share political space. It could be argued that even if it did share political space the situation would not necessarily improve, since each faction in the government might seek to cultivate its own people in the force, leading to a situation of even greater sub-optimality.
In the end, whatever government is in office will have to answer a key question: does it want a professional force, or one harbouring key figures who are responsive to the political concerns of those in office. If the latter, then it can forget about professional policing.