Last October, in the course of his first press conference as Commissioner of Police, Mr. Leslie James provided an undertaking that by March of this year we could expect a Police Force, which had undergone some amount of measurable and meaningful change. In some respects he was quite specific, listing “human resource management, training and infrastructure” as the three broad areas in which the Force would undergo some measure of transformation. He went into various minutiae including the remodeling and re-commissioning of Police Stations, enhancing the Force’s marine capability, improving “mobile and foot patrols” and providing improved “response time” to incidents. He envisaged, as well, reform of the Force’s training institutions, its Public Relations Arm and its Traffic Advisory infrastructure. Beyond that he asserted that we could expect the Force to have an Aviation Unit “very soon,” though, perhaps upon careful reflection, he declined to attach a particular time frame to that particular undertaking.
Five months have come and gone and Commissioner James would do well to afford us a reassuring update on the extent to which those undertakings have been realized or are at least approaching realization. If there is every likelihood that there may be some measure of slippage, given the accustomed constraints, that hardly matters. Here, it is really a matter, a priori, of Commissioner James striving for public confidence in and public approval of his leadership, things that matter from the broader perspective of the importance of his role as Commissioner of Police.
Some of the undertakings, like the upgrading of Police Stations would have been doable over a five-month period, though, taken together, the package of commitments seemed to be somewhat ambitious in the first place. Still, if Mr. James is to build the confidence in his leadership that will go a long way towards him becoming a successful Commissioner of Police he will have to begin by, as far as possible, fulfilling undertakings that have to do with the incremental improvement in the quality of service provided by the Force since he will doubtless recall those instances in which the various reform-related promises of his predecessors all fell flat on their faces resulting in the continual erosion of their credibility and the Force’s overall image.
Mr. James has been placed in a position where the whole matter of police reform that now sits in his lap has been languishing somewhere between the confines of lukewarm ivory tower-type promises and a stone cold back burner for years. There is, frankly, no more elbow room for unrealized promises attended by vacuous excuses for underachievement. So that while we are far from filled with exalted expectations that the Commissioner’s undertakings would all be met within the given time frame, we are entitled to expect a progress report reflective at least of an energetic and manifestly convincing effort and one that realizes some measure of meaningful results.
There is, of course, as was said earlier, virtually zero expectation that all of the targets would have been met within the given time frame. Setting aside the human and material resource limitations associated therewith, there are, as well, issues of training, motivation and commitment which, in the instance of the Force, would have been virtually impossible to change over such a limited period, some of those areas having long been set in their aberrant ways. Customarily, competence levels in the Force have been measured applying mostly unreliable ‘upgrading’ yardsticks that have to do with the allocation of resources, be those motor vehicles, computers and new and/or rehabilitated police stations, whereas the litmus test of a Police Force’s performance is really grounded in the professionalism and dedication of the policemen and women who serve the Force. Failure to grasp that reality has probably been the most glaring underachievement of the Guyana Police Force.
The factors affecting commitment and professionalism are many and complex, arguably the most challenging of these being an embedded propensity for various forms of corrupt practices which, while providing no justification for the delinquencies at the local level, are globally commonplace.
Police Forces the world over have been commonly identified as perhaps the most enduringly corrupt state institutions, corruption being defined here as the abuse of entrusted state power for private material gain. Focused research has tended to pay particular attention to policing in Asia and Africa which frequently highlights the inclination of administrations to tackle police corruption through wide alliances among the public, private and civil society sectors. In the instance of Guyana, there exists no evidence that what one might call a tri-sectorial approach to tackling corruption in the Police Force has ever really been applied. What appears to have become embedded here is an insidious ‘live-and-let-live’ culture that links the police and the offenders, be they corrupt businessmen, traffic offenders or hard-core criminals of one sort or another in an entrenched buying and selling of ‘favours,’ by far the most visible manifestation of which, here in Guyana is the bribing of traffic cops to look the other way in instances of on-the-road transgressions. These, one might add, whilst being the most visible instances of corrupt policemen and women are by no means the most materially rewarding ones. To return to the Commissioner’s reform-related undertakings other critical questions arise…like those relating to funding, training resources and a recruitment policy that is successful in attracting suitable material in the first place. The argument that upgraded remuneration alone cannot bring about a qualitative change in the performance of our policemen and women hardly gainsays the fact that poor remuneration (against the backdrop of a high cost of living) provides both an excuse (though hardly a justifiable one) and an ‘incentive’ for the perpetuation of police corruption. Need, as much as greed will always nourish the temptation for corruption in the Force.
We must hear from Commissioner James, sooner rather than later, on the outcomes of the undertakings he made last October since the last thing that he needs is to have his record encumbered by myriad promises of an improved Police Force which undertakings are not backed by positive and concrete action and which will, ultimately, form part of his own personal report card as ‘top cop.’ That, indeed, has been the lot of many of his recent predecessors and it is the resulting loss of public trust and confidence in the various undertakings given by police administrations over the years that has resulted in the continual erosion of the credibility of the Force.
Over the longer period and having, through his hoped-for imminent report card, established an enhanced measure of public trust in his own credibility, it would do his tenure a power of good if the Commissioner could come to appreciate that energetic media and civil society, both committed to the realization of meaningful police reform can help the cause immeasurably. The lesson of past attempts at police reforms elsewhere that most fail, has been, in large measure, the result of the absence of any real connection between the public, who want the reforms, and the police service, who would often rather reform out of the public limelight. Connecting the reforms very directly to the public is one way of changing this narrative and bringing public enthusiasm to bear to strengthen the resolve of the police to continue reforms. It would do his overall experience as Commissioner of Police no harm if the Commissioner were to bring this perspective to bear on his leadership. We must be able to gauge from his reporting (or otherwise) on the undertakings of last October, his mindset on the critical issue of meaningful police reforms.