Public confidence and the police

Stabroek News
November 7, 1999

No one pretends that the police force in Guyana has an easy task. It is undermanned, its members are grossly underpaid (the recent 12 per cent increase in salaries will not catapult the average officer into a comfortable lifestyle), it lacks material resources and its training is clearly deficient. Whatever the constraints, the public still expects the police to handle every situation ranging from domestic quarrels to armed banditry with some degree of competence.

Given all the impediments, it is not too surprising that corruption seems to be endemic, that the beating of suspects to obtain a confession has become a substitute for real investigative work and that temporary campaigns against traffic offenders, boom-boom boxes, or whatever, has come to take the place of sustained policing activity. For all of Commissioner Lewis' best PR efforts, the public is only too conscious of the shortcomings of the force he leads. The police interact with citizens every day in some capacity or the other, and the latter make their own judgements about the quality of the performance of those paid to protect them quite independently of what any Chief of Police or Minister of Government has to say.

That the myriad problems of the Guyana Police Force will not be solved in a hurry, is something which is accepted by quite a few rational Guyanese. However, there are certain unacceptable acts perpetrated by members of the force which cannot be excused by low wages or lack of resources and which not just the Commissioner, but also the Minister of Home Affairs have shown a singular reluctance to deal with. These are firstly, the extra-judicial killings on the part of police which are only rarely investigated, and secondly, the assaults on citizens by the men in blue (or more often, black) for which apologies are just as rarely proffered.

An incident took place at Enmore recently, when a policeman allegedly shot a man who was reportedly inebriated, and against whom a complaint of domestic violence had been lodged. The official press release giving an account of the circumstances of his death bore no relationship whatsoever to the eyewitness accounts of how he died supplied to this newspaper by his relatives. What those relatives had to say was profoundly disturbing, but it seems that the police have finished with the matter.

Of course, the powers-that-be can always retreat under the cover of saying that no complaint about a given incident has been made to the Police Complaints Authority. But how many citizens, particularly ordinary people, have actually heard of the Police Complaints Authority, or if they have and have complained, how many have obtained satisfaction? Those who do know about it, have little faith in it because it is not an independent body.

It is time Minister Gajraj took notice. It does not help the reputation of the police force, it does not help the reputation of the Minister and it does not help the reputation of his Government if the police are seen as a law unto themselves, who can shoot or beat up citizens with impunity. Several agencies, including this newspaper, have been calling for some time for the setting up of an independent body to investigate complaints against the police. Why is Minister Gajraj deaf to these calls? In addition, the WPA recently proposed the appointment of a magistrate to act as a coroner on a permanent basis so that there could be inquests into all cases of suspicious death. It is something which the powers-that-be should take on board.

While public confidence in the Guyana Police Force has been steadily eroding for many years, it should not decline to a point where the public is afraid to approach its members for assistance.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples