The frightening thing with police brutality is, like other forms of abuse, it escalates if not confronted and stopped. For the police will perceive our silence as tacit support of their behaviour. When this is coupled with our tendency to order investigations after each police killing while rarely releasing the findings, ideal conditions for continued police abuse are created.
The Guyana Police Force has always been inclined to be brutish when dealing with the poor. Indeed, the police were initially created to keep the poor in their place. Thus, the former enslaved and the indentured servants were the early targets of the police. At the birth of a nationalist movement it was the common man and their leaders who took the brunt of this same police brutality. Later it was the police who beat staff members at Guyana Stores who dared to strike during PNC rule and it was the same police who dragged our nurses during the reign of the PPP. All this done to our people for committing the unpardonable sin of withholding their labour in their quest for a decent wage. Yes, whether we are law abiding or not, poor people have always been at the receiving end of police excesses. Sadly, in the 21st century this assault on the poor by the police continues.
In October 2009 a 14-year-old suspect had methylated spirits poured on his genital area and set on fire by the police at Leonora Police Station. More recently we read Tilawattie Singh’s account of an experience she had with the police in Berbice. With this as our reality and our seeming inability to stamp out this tendency, students of criminal justice have a pressing duty. First, to seek to help the nation understand why this type of police behaviour continues. Secondly to offer advice to our poor brothers and sisters (the brutality is almost always directed at them) on what they can do to reduce the likelihood of being brutalized during encounters with the police.
The Police Force has an inability to attract bright young citizens to join its fold. So it is obliged to employ persons who have not done well academically. Now the problem of police abuse will suggest that instructions on ethics should make up a significant portion of police training. But since the recruits are not academically inclined what percentage of their training time would be enough for reaching them intellectually? Further, the fact these recruits are usually from high crime communities, the question becomes what influences their behavior most: the few months of police training or the values they bring from their home environment? This is an environment in which they are accustomed to seeing violence used for gaining compliance to an instruction. Is our present police training programme structured with such concerns in mind? And even if one is able to structure such a training programme and satisfy the needs of a majority, isn’t it reasonable to suspect those not able to meet will comprise a sizable minority?
A second condition that gives rise to police brutality is frustration. When the police are not able to reduce the crime rate significantly over an extended period, protests from the business community, politicians, professionals and common folks become loud and constant. Interest groups turn to the letters column of newspapers to air their dissatisfaction, anti-crime marches are organized and TV talk shows dedicate considerable time to addressing the issue. This forces the police to respond. The police administration up braid the junior ranks for not being vigilant and tough. The junior ranks hit the road filled with anger and anxious to get their hands on those they perceive as law-breakers on whom they can take out their frustration.
Another reason for police brutality is their sense of pride. When a police officer attempts to make an arrest and the youth runs, forcing the police, with heavy boots and uncomfortable caps to pursue watched by a laughing crowd (Guyanese laugh at the strangest things), the police feel humiliated. Running after a suspect is demeaning to the police. As a youth growing up in a poor area I knew that one would suffer a worse fate at the hands of the police if you made him run ‒ appear less in control, ‘less cool.’ The youth who does not run and makes himself available for arrest, even if he protests rudely and with profanity laden language, will be treated civilly, well at least better than the guy who runs and makes the police run. There is so much more that could be said on this issue of cause; for example peer pressure is also a contributing factor.
The first advice for citizens is that when approached by the police be respectful, address the police as ‘Officer’ or ‘Sir’; such courtesy tends to disarm police ranks, forcing them to behave in a manner worthy of such respectful salutation. There is some truth in the saying that in your company, people behave in the manner that you make them feel is acceptable. Learn from the people of the USA, where it seems, every parent teaches their children to be respectful when stopped by the police. They know that whether that child lives or dies could be decided by how he/she addresses the police.
Secondly, when stopped by the police do not run; remember what I said about the police hating to have to chase on foot. As a youth I grew up in a poor area, I know the value of this advice.
Finally, always keep your cell phone on record when talking to a police officer. You might not be able to film the encounter (usually this is done by a passer-by). But the next best thing is a record of the exchange. The police when physically abusing a citizen, are inclined to be loud and resort to the use of a liberal dose of expletives. It’s as if they need to work themselves into a frenzy. In the absence of some kind of recording it becomes the word of the police against yours. Judges will throw out such cases for lack of evidence.
Editor, while there are some good members of the police force these are sufficient bad ones to make it likely that at some point in time, as a citizen, you will encounter one. If you are poor the likeliness increases. Coming from poverty I care about how poor people are treated. And sometimes being innocent is no protection. The Trinidadian calypsonian – Flashy Dan, in one of his calypsos reminds us:
“Is de ghetto bandits who getting de licks
Cause de white-collar ones’ link-up with politics”
So, meh poor brothers and sisters, wah -ever yuh race or ethnicity, from one ghetto man to another, I care bout you, and, dis letter is fo you.