Joint Patrols

Editorial from Sunday Stabroek
October 6, 1996

The fact that it has been considered necessary to put the army on the streets to contain crime is less a comment on the burgeoning crime rate than it is on the failure of the police force and of the Government itself. Despite all the police seminars and declarations of intent from various officials, offences involving firearms are on the increase, and citizens feel less secure on the streets and in their homes than they have done since the era of kick-down-the-door banditry. The reasons for the growing number of crimes of violence are well-known; they are almost certainly a by-product of the new drugs culture which threatens to extinguish what little remains of our traditional values.

While there are circumstances under which an army can be called out to restore order on the streets in an open society, those circumstances are exceptional. Even if one allowed that the present conditions constituted an emergency, and that the police needed assistance from the GDF to help them through the present crisis, that should never be accepted as a permanent arrangement. There is something seriously wrong when the President of a democratic nation informs the people that he intends to keep soldiers on the streets in the long term simply in order to reduce the crime rate. Other than during a state of emergency, military functions and powers are quite different from those of the police, and, as far as possible, that should remain so.

The Government, so sluggish in moving on so many matters, has shown unusual torpor when it comes to addressing the problems of an undermanned, underpaid and demoralized police force. Its earlier solution to the crime problem - if such it can be called - was to arm vigilantes, a solution which has not proved an unqualified success. Since most of the more brutal crimes have been directly or indirectly connected to drugs, vigilantes could hardly have been expected to operate as anything more than an adjunct to the regular law-enforcement body. Containing the violence that is spawned by a drugs culture should be the work of a professional, well-trained, well-equipped police force, not part-time amateurs.

Now that citizens have complained with particular vociferousness about the recent attacks on innocent people, the administration has done its magician's act and has pulled a military rabbit out of the hat. A few joint patrols with uniformed men in bullet-proof vests touting formidable-looking weapons, and the Government feels that all is well. It will in due course find that all is not well, particularly if the army is to be on the streets for any length of time and criminals become accustomed to their presence.

The Government appears to have confused the roles of the military and the police. As a matter of fact, it does not seem to have got clear in its mind exactly what it is that the GDF should be doing. With its attempts to transfer army officers to the Public Service, and the most recent statements about keeping military personnel on crime patrol for an indefinite period, it conveys the impression that ideally it would like to do without an army altogether. While in the short term the joint patrols might have shock value, in the long term the attempt to convert military personnel into police aides can only undermine the esprit de corps of both forces, and make them both less effective.

In seems too that the administration has not given thought to the effect the joint patrols will have on the tourist industry. Nothing will deter tourists more than the sight of armed soldiers patrolling a city; it conveys a sense of danger and instability. In contrast, a strong police presence on the streets will give tourists an enhanced feeling of security and order.

After four crime-filled years it is time the nation heard from the Government's most reticent Minister. What are his plans for rehabilitating the police force? Where is the project for improving police pay and conditions? Where is his scheme for equipping the force adequately and for strengthening its investigative capacity? And where are his proposals for the setting up of an independent commission to hear complaints against the police? The people are listening, so over to Minister Mohamed.