The Police Complaints Authority must be restructured and empowered To the Editor
Guyana Chronicle
January 7, 2002

Recently, the Police Complaints Authority made news when the President announced the appointment of Cecil Kennard as the new authority. Given the widespread public alarm and anguish over the unrelenting abuses of police power, Mr. Kennard would make himself useful if he initiates a national debate on how the complaints authority could better serve and protect citizens.

The PCA was established by the Hoyte reformist government in 1990 to serve as an independent body to receive and investigate complaints from the public about police misconduct and to supervise the investigation of alleged criminal offences committed by members of the Force. At the time, indiscipline in the Police Force was widely considered to have amounted to a crisis and although a Police Discipline Act existed, the Police rarely enforced it on itself. The then government responded by creating an independent and external complaints and investigative authority, the PCA, to rein in the Police Force.

The actual complaints authority refers to one person (called a Police Ombudsman in some countries), who must be qualified to act as a Judge of the High Court. He is assisted by a panel of two persons and a small secretarial staff.

Over its twelve years, the PCA, as an institution, has failed to restrain the police for two main reasons. For one, its method of investigation: the Police Complaints Authority Act requires the authority, on receiving a legitimate complaint from a citizen about police misconduct, to submit the complaint to the Commissioner of Police for investigation. The authority therefore has to rely on the very police to investigate itself. Such in-house investigations seem to work well in countries such as the US, with their police internal affairs departments, but have long earned the disdain and distrust of Guyanese.

Secondly, the attitude of the police towards the authority: the Police Force has not interrelated with the PCA as the Act obligates it to and has, in fact, treated the authority with scant respect. In the first months of operation of the PCA, when the police probably overestimated the powers and scope of the authority, the police thought it necessary to intimidate citizens who lodged complaints with the authority by charging or threatening them.

As the police began to recognise the limitations of the authority, it no longer felt the need to use heavy-handed tactics against complainants, but instead began to disregard its obligations towards the authority. Two cases illustrate this point. The first is the situation with Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.) files. The Police Complaints Authority Act obligates the police, in instances where a police officer has unlawfully caused the death of any citizen or where he has committed such offences as unlawfully wounding a citizen and discharging a loaded firearm with intent, to submit a C.I.D. file to the PCA for it to investigate. In 1991, the police submitted 29 such reports to the PCA. In 1992, it sent nine. From 1995 to 2001, the police submitted a total of just two files - and this against the background of mounting instances of police excesses.

The second case in point concerns the submission of police reports to the PCA on its investigations of complaints. Apart from the fact that the Police Force appears unable or unwilling to investigate all complaints referred to it by the PCA (averaging roughly 50% yearly since 1990) it studiously neglects to inform the PCA what punishment, if any, it has imposed on the offending police officer.

The incapacity of the PCA to effectively serve as a public protector against police abuses has eroded public confidence in its usefulness. The graph of submitted complaints speaks for itself. In 1990, the first year of operation of the PCA, it received 341 complaints from citizens. In 2000, it received 69 and in 2001, approximately 44. In a few short years, with this trend, the public will mercifully put the PCA out of business.

The new PCA Chairman, Cecil Kennard, if he intends to energetically work to transform the authority into a true protector of the rights of citizens, should take on board the following suggestions.

Firstly, he must get the government and the parliament to rewrite the PCA Act to give the authority similar powers and functions as the new constitution commissions. New powers should include the explicit right to initiate its own investigations even if no specific complaint has been received; to act as mediator and conciliator between police and public; and to take appropriate action on behalf of persons whose rights have been violated. Additional functions should include the mandate to educate citizens of their rights; to recommend better police procedures; and to survey public attitudes towards the police and to compile data on trends and patterns in complaints. Importantly, the revamped PCA Act must bring community-policing groups under the umbrella of the PCA.

Secondly, he must get the government to allocate far more resources to the PCA to allow it to do such things as add investigators and lawyers to his staff.

Thirdly, he must raise public awareness of the presence and role of the PCA.

Fourthly, he must clarify the areas of jurisdiction between the PCA and the Director of Public Prosecution over the handling of alleged criminal offences committed by police officers.

It should be said in passing that these very approaches must also be applied to the Office of the Ombudsman, the public protector against abuses by public offices, to invigorate this obscure institution.

Mr Kennard will be a major disappointment if he succumbs to the dim, sluggish atmosphere of the offices of the PCA.

The government, meanwhile, must adopt the same attitude of the Hoyte reformist administration by responding to a deep public concern.

Sherwood Lowe