Fiddling over police reform

News that a serving member of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) is allegedly one of two suspects who confessed to the carjacking and robbing of a taxi driver just over a week ago at Bachelor’s Adventure on the East Coast Demerara really ought to fill us all with a sense of shock, even utter disbelief. As it happens and to the utter shame of the nation, that is not the case. The news has – more likely than not – drifted from public consciousness by now. Put differently, crooked cops have now become par for the course in Guyana.

The incident comes in the wake of what would appear to be the targeting of taxi drivers by bandits in recent weeks. Over the past month or so there have been two reports of taxi drivers being murdered after being hired by their assailants.

This newspaper takes no pride in making the point that links between serving members of the GPF and criminal acts (policemen are even believed to be part of organized criminal gangs) are far from uncommon, though this particular incident, coming at a time when the image of the force is experiencing one of the troughs into which it slips with monotonous regularity, adds to the burden that law enforcement is already compelled to carry.

It is at times like this, of course, that all sorts of questions arise about the force, including those associated with whether or not applicants for the police are subjected to prior background checks and whether such training as entrants receive is sufficient and relevant enough to instil in them an unswerving commitment to service and protection. The training, surely, has to go beyond the procedures and protocols associated with the orthodoxies of policing, and must imbue in trainees a sense of mission, and a moral commitment to upholding the law. It probably will not work in every instance, though it must still be the driving force behind the training of police officers.

The available evidence certainly suggests that, among other things, there is need not only for retraining in many instances, but also for far more scrupulous monitoring of the attitudes and activities of policemen to determine whether or not they do the force credit or otherwise.

It is hardly a secret, for example, that some policemen (and women) routinely take bribes in exchange for setting aside traffic offences, and yet one does not get the impression that as an institution the force sets its face against the practice. Traffic-related bribes and other forms of skullduggery associated with some police officers are reported in the media with monotonous regularity and yet these persist, seemingly without sanction.

What this suggests is that in far too many instances the training and orientation has simply not worked the way it was intended to, and a point has surely been reached where the Public Security Ministry must change gears and pay more focused attention to both the character and the training of prospective policemen and women.

There are those who will argue that few as the incentives are for forward-looking young men and women to join the GPF, the Force faces a much narrower range of choice than it might have hoped for. That, of course is a valid point. There is limited room for picking and choosing.

But then we have persisted for far too long with the vacuous political chatter over police reform even as crime threatens to overwhelm us, so that the present administration would appear to be faced with no other choice but to seriously embrace and begin to effect the reforms that are necessary, or else watch itself have to take more and more blame each time that there is a spike in the crime situation as the weeks and months of its tenure slip by.

Guyana, of course, is by no means unique as far as crooked cops are concerned. In our instance, however, what is disturbing is the impression one gets that that – these days with increasing frequency – the GPF appears increasingly leaden-footed and the criminals more emboldened. It is as much the inability of the force to provide the citizens with a measure of reassurance as the actual commission of the crimes that increases the sense of national alarm.

To make matters worse, Guyana continues to be numbered amongst those countries where the force remains considerably under-resourced and policemen and women underpaid; in other words the limitations lie in the realms of both capacity and incentive.

So that it is by no means surprising, first, that the crime situation often appears to be beyond the force and secondly that corruption and other criminal practices are prevalent in the force. Now that the matter of the nexus between remuneration and incentive surfaced in a rather public manner (in the matter of salary increases for ministers) the spurious argument that so often seeks to make the point that poor pay should not excuse underperformance will go away, and we will get down to the business of paying policemen and women decent salaries. Mind you, better pay will not remove the scourge of crooked cops though, arguably, it could serve to attract to the force more men and women who embrace the principle of Service and Protection.

The very idea of a serving member of the GPF becoming involved in a crime, for that matter                                                                                                                   one in which a citizen is assaulted and robbed is as damaging for the nation as it is for the force. In the former instance it deepens an already considerable level of distrust that sections of the populace have for the force; in the latter one it seriously erodes the fabric of police-citizen cooperation without which effective policing is bound to be far more challenging. A criminal act by a serving policeman is a crime against the state. Where rogue policemen and women cannot be discouraged through moral suasion (and perhaps not even by better remuneration) the perpetrators must be punished to the extent that sends a message of zero tolerance sufficiently strong to deter others.

At the same time, there is no escaping the reality that an enhanced sense of duty and integrity in the Guyana Police Force will not come about through mere promises of police reform. The answer lies in creating a better trained, better equipped and far better incentivized GPF. It cannot be done in a day but we simply must start now. At the moment we appear close to ‘fiddling’ whilst Guyana ‘burns.’


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