Choosing law enforcement over lawlessness

All too frequently, the Guyana Police Force (GPF) gets itself into the news for the wrong reasons. Those responsible for the administration of law and order appear not to recognize that the GPF, perhaps more than most other state institutions, must be the beneficiary of generous measures of public confidence and goodwill if it is to discharge its responsibilities effectively.

It has to be said that a positive public image and an effective law enforcement regimen cannot be separated one from another. The loss of public confidence and goodwill which has been consequent on poor performance has been one of the most serious crises that the Force has had to face, particularly over the past twenty-five years or so. Whether in the course of on-the-ground police investigations or in its pursuit of convictions in courts of law, it is the considerable loss of public confidence that has been the Achilles heel of the Force. Whether the authorities accept it or not ineffective policing represents, in large measure, a squandering of what, for the Force, are priceless intangible assets.

The contemporary public image of the GPF is shaped largely by a track record that is strewn with countless instances of brutality and stories of death squads and summary executions. Some of these bear a chilling resemblance to the policing practices by the repressive Latin American regimes of the latter half of the twentieth century.

What became apparent long ago is that the police had embraced cruelty and ruthlessness as accepted methods of enforcing the law. No less apparent was the seeming disinclination of the powers that be to have the Force do things differently.

The 2004 public enquiry relating to then Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj produced more than a generous measure of evidence of truth in the allegations of illegal policing methods. Moreover, it was the government’s responses to the outcomes of that enquiry that may even have offered clues regarding the direction in which policing was likely to go in the future.

Not surprisingly, the issues of brutality and torture keep returning to public discourse on policing with monotonous regularity. Some of those particular allegations are now prominent in the public space. In the Colwyn Harding case, prosecution of police officers has been secured largely on account of sustained public and media advocacy, the posture of the police in the matter having been characterized by equal measures of stonewalling and indifference.

The issue of illegal policing methods and the consequential state of relations between the GPF and the public arose again just a few days ago during an interview this newspaper had with a security expert. In the course of the exchange the expert made the deeply disturbing assertion that public manifestations of police brutality are in fact reflections of the “culture” of policing in Guyana rather than simply the aberrant behaviour of some misguided thugs in uniform. The suggestion that police excesses are covered up because of some unwritten code that police do not ‘snitch’ on each other, and that a lot of what is happening cannot take place without the knowledge of ranks in high command, does not bear thinking about.

For a host of profoundly important reasons it is in the interest of the GPF to undertake a studied review of its relations with the public that it polices and protects as a facet of its broader law enforcement mission.