Giving the police a fighting chance

Stabroek News
July 23, 2001

Over recent weeks, it does appear that the government has begun to realise that major investments in the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and a reorientation of its methods are necessary if it has a chance to take the initiative away from well-armed and organised criminals.

There have been several promising steps. These include the US$1M subvention for improving the mobility of the GPF which is woefully hamstrung when the criminals strike. Even when the police are on wheels their transportation is no match for the high-calibre weaponry ranged against them. The attack at Rampoor, Berbice in which policeman Collin Frazer was shot and injured was a good example of this. As the locally-made Tapir raced towards the scene of the crime, the bullets cut into him and the vehicle ended up taking him to the hospital. Earlier, the same bandits who carried out this abominable attack had travelled nearly 100 miles by boat unhindered up the coast. If the police had a marine wing it could have easily pursued the criminals. The US$1M must be spent on suitable vehicles - including water transport - and these must be properly maintained and not driven into the ground.

Another hopeful sign was the commitments made by the Home Affairs Minister, Ronald Gajraj at a press conference held earlier this month. He said that in addition to the US$1M, $30M would be made available to the GPF to gear it towards dealing with criminals armed with sophisticated weapons. The sum allotted will not take care of all of the vital equipping needs but is a start.

Importantly, Gajraj said that the police would pay more attention to "preventative policing" and the gathering of information. At last, the pleas by persons here and the recommendations in the Mathias and Symonds reports seem to have fallen on fertile ground. Too much of the GPF's work is reactive as opposed to pre-emptive and there is little solid undercover work being done. Hopefully, these are the areas that the UK's famed Scotland Yard can assist the GPF with. For years, despite repeated calls, both the government and the GPF had rebuffed calls for expert help for the police force. This resistance has no doubt crumbled as the tide of crime swept in.

Further, Gajraj said that the police forensics lab will be tended to as it has an important role to play in combating crime. Strengthening the ballistics and finger-printing departments will be focused on. Here again, the government has been slow in realising that forensics work is a crucial cog in the wheels of policing.

While these announcements are welcome, there is still a lot more to be done. First, the wages of policemen need a significant bump this year. The force is still susceptible to corruptive influences and for the demands placed on them they should be earning more.

Secondly, as the Symonds report pointed out, the administrative and desk jobs being undertaken by the police should be out-sourced leaving law enforcers to do real policing work. Hundreds of policemen could be freed for patrolling streets in the capital and crime-prone areas.

Thirdly, serious investigative work has to be the constant mantra of the GPF. Coupled with an improved forensics lab, the police have to do real legwork in probing crimes instead of relying solely on coerced and beaten confessions which do not stand up well in court. This is another area where Scotland Yard's help would be priceless and maybe retired detectives and police officers from the olden days can also be recruited to help train those now in the force.

Fourthly, in the courtroom police prosecutors are still hopelessly outgunned by private lawyers and even in cases where the evidence is overwhelming, criminals have gotten off. Though the police prosecutors have gotten some training they need more and in high-profile cases the state needs to retain private counsel to have a chance at winning convictions.

Fifthly, the police have to pay serious attention to the number of extra-judicial killings that have tainted the force and ensure that these come to an end and the ones that have occurred are investigated. The general improvement in police work and convictions in court will surely decrease this number.

With the imminent departure of Police Commissioner Laurie Lewis, the government must move to ensure that his successor has the necessary arsenal at his disposal to confront the criminals.