A tough job

Stabroek News
April 3, 2001

If one made a book on the least popular jobs at election time there can be no doubt that the post of chairman of the elections commission would be the odds on favourite. Given what he knew about the fate of his namesake and predecessor Major General (rtd) Joe Singh showed quite exceptional fortitude and national commitment in accepting this thankless job.

But not too far behind, the second favourite so to speak, would be the post of Commissioner of Police. Equally thankless, one is expected to show infinite wisdom and patience in dealing with often restless and occasionally violent crowds. If you do too little, the populace is after your head for not doing your job. If you do too much, the human rights and other critics are after you.

Commissioner Laurie Lewis must have been praying for the post election protests to end. In normal times he has a problem with an underpaid, under equipped and under-trained force whose methods of investigation of crimes have been much criticised as inadequate and unscientific and relying too much on induced confessions. At election time the whole question of marches (often illegal, as no permission is sought in advance under the Public Order Act), assemblies (often illegal as roads are blocked, noise is made in silent zones and so on) become a positive nightmare. Dealing with them effectively requires a perfect feel for that thin line between firmness and weakness.

Crowd control is a science in itself as a brief reading of any training manual will show. Each crowd has its own character. Some are peaceful and well behaved, even good natured. But this can change as a result of rumours, for example, or the intervention of agitators or even police overreaction by bringing in superior force when it isn't needed. All of this requires a fine judgement and an experienced officer in charge.

Take the following random quotation on crowd control formations to illustrate the complexity of the issue: "Crowd control formations, when properly employed and executed against a crowd of limited size, are one of the most practical methods of crowd control. In selecting force options, the riot baton generally is the main weapon of the control force. If the situation is serious, the commander may consider employing a mix of batons and rifles. For example, the first line of the formation is armed with batons and the second or supporting ranks are armed with rifles or rifles with fixed bayonets".

There then follow some sixteen pages, including diagrams. That is, of course, dealing with a different type of crowd, a riotous crowd. But dealing with any crowd can be difficult because moods change. In addition, the police said in a press release that armed criminals were mixing with the crowd as it could provide a camouflage for their own nefarious activities.

There are elements in the police force who do not play by the rules. That phenomenon started in another era when some of them were used for political purposes against opponents of the regime. There are still regrettably several continuing incidents of police brutality and an ongoing need for training clearly exists. But given the inadequate conditions of service, the obvious ethnic pressures which led some to suggest that they would not do their job properly and the taunting and ridicule to which they were sometimes subjected by the crowds we believe they acquitted themselves well during the recent protests, despite some obvious lapses. Teargas, for example, should be used sparingly and preferably not in residential areas. And if children are present in crowds special care should be taken, though normally of course children should not be present in crowds.

There is always room for improvement and the police force needs more training and better conditions of employment. But their critics are sometimes unduly harsh and tend to overlook the difficulties inherent in the situation.