Society has failed to hold police officers to professional standards in the use of deadly force

Dear Editor,

The recent killing of Mr. Estevan Costa Marques a Brazilian miner in the Puruni, Region Seven (Cuyuni–Mazaruni) by a member of the Guyana Police Force, (GPF) and the autopsy report that revealed that he died from a shot to the back of his head, caused me to revisit a letter I began writing in response to one written by Mr. Clinton Conway, Assistant Commissioner of Police (Retired).

In his letter published in the Monday, August 06 2018 edition of both the Stabroek News and Kaieteur News, under the respective captions  `Determining what is reasonable use of force by the police is highly subjective’ and ` Damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ was a timely intervention into the debate on police killings. It is to his credit, being a former senior member of the force who had a major role in the training and education of police officers that he continues to show interest in that institution and to offer his expertise on matters relating to law enforcement.

Given his experience and knowledge on police and law enforcement matters, he speaks to the issue of what is, “reasonable use of force by the police” with authority, as demonstrated in his letter. In support of his contention, he quoted from the following sources: (a) International Association of Chiefs of Police (b) Guyana Police Force Orders 33/69 (c) Graham v Connor (d) The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (USA) model and (e) use of force expert Nowicki. These are welcome sources of information which the public will find helpful in understanding the complexities of this issue. Hopefully, it may also serve as a sober reminder to all police officers on what is the established professional best practice on the use of force by the police. 

Mr. Conway’s salient point is that policemen are at times faced with situations which offer little time for reflection, and officers may act spontaneously resulting in fatalities. Every society recognized the hazards faced by police officers in the execution of their duties, and view their actions with some degree of understanding. However, this does not mean that police officers should be given a free pass when they commit criminal acts.

In Guyana, we are dealing with a situation where police officers often resort to the use of force un-necessarily, and frequently deadly force. This is an age-old problem that has existed for more than 50 years. In the colonial days, police officers were more circumspect with the use of firearms. Police shootings, and more so fatalities, were once and far. The present reckless use of lethal force by some police officers is an abuse of the privilege to subjectively determine the reasonable use of force in a given situation. Often when such abuses occur, the public gets the impression that the internal structures and procedures of the force are inadequate to hold officers accountable for their actions.

As a nation, we have failed to effectively manage the force. The internal and external supervision has proven to be unable to hold officers to high professional conduct when it comes to the use of deadly force. This failure jeopardises citizens’ civil rights and the right to life when citizens come in contact with some police officers.

I have paid close attention to the above matters for many decades and like most Guyanese of my age, witnessed the evolution of the present crisis in relation to police conduct in the use of force. The fact that only a few police officers have been charged, placed before the courts and convicted for murders committed in the execution of their duty demonstrate that the problem is not simply a police problem.

In this environment, the talk of “Damned if they do, damned if they don’t” seems inappropriate given the known evidence when it comes to incidents where citizens, law-abiding or criminals, are killed by the police.  We have to face the fact that in the Guyana Police Force there are many criminals/scoundrels who commit heinous crimes. However, they are not subject to summary execution under the pretext of enforcing the law.    

Former Assistant Commissioner, Mr. Conway may agree with my position that the Guyana Police Force and successive governments and the courts have collectively failed to create the social, legal and political environment to effectively hold accountable officers we armed with deadly weapons, and give them the privilege to determine when the use of force, deadly or otherwise, is justified. It is my considered opinion based on my long involvement as a political activist and my role in the struggle against police oppression, that police officers generally are aware of the rules of engagement and the law, when it comes to the use of force. The problem is not ignorance of the law on the part of officers. The breakdown lies in the complicity of senior officers, who under pressure to get results in crime fighting, often overlook the law, and rules of engagement, and cover up the criminal actions of those who they have a responsibility to supervise. There are other important factors that contribute to ‘the shoot to kill’ behaviour of some police officers.

In this letter, I am deliberately not addressing matters like police collusion with criminals and the subsequent execution of these criminals by officers in order to cover up their involvement with these elements.

An objective study of the force’s internal culture will reveal that many practices in the stations undermine in a significant way the professional conduct of its officers, both junior and senior when dealing with crimes by ordinary citizens – more so the poor and the powerless.  The evidence will also show that the social prejudice and contempt that police have developed over time for this section of the society creates the attitudes that perpetuate police brutality and killings. Not surprisingly, this reckless disrespect for life has now spread beyond the police institution and is quickly becoming a way of life influencing how citizens use their firearm. A good example is a recent incident where a citizen allegedly pumped four bullets into the chest of a neighbour. This is a troubling development and a reflection of the growing disrespect for human life in the society. 

In closing, in the interest of public education and in order to widen the debate on police shootings, I take this opportunity to ask Mr.  Clinton Conway to share his views on the relationship between “police station culture” and police excesses.

Yours faithfully

Tacuma Ogunseye

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