Taking the fight to the criminals Editorial
Stabroek News
June 17, 2002

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Friday's attack on three policemen just outside the Wismar police station was not only an assault on law enforcement, it was an unmistakable challenge to the pillars that support an ordered and democratic society. Each and every citizen must see this pernicious wave of crime as a serious threat to their fundamental freedoms and play their part in fighting it otherwise we will all be contributing to the orgy of lawlessness which will inevitably touch everyone.

It has not been a good season for the police. They have taken a literal battering at the hands of these unforgiving criminals. Four of their number have been killed and several others seriously injured including Constable Thomas from Friday's attack. The infamy was deepened by the attack in May on the Alberttown Police Station in which rural constable Andy Atwell was killed. Friday's shoot-out could also easily have ended up in a bloody assault on the Wismar Police Station. It is evident that the criminals are gunning for the police and with deadly consequences.

To make matters worse, the police have come under close scrutiny from the public. Years of allegations against the force of callousness, brutality, extra-judicial killings and corruption have seriously undermined the reservoir of public goodwill which in times of crises like these is an enormously valuable asset in the fight against crime. This public distrust of the police has recently concentrated in two issues: extra-judicial killings and the corrupt use of police officers in the US visa scam which saw former US embassy official Thomas Carroll being sentenced on Friday to 21 years imprisonment. The police force has not done itself any favours by being defensive on these issues and being unwilling to countenance the possibility that its officers could be guilty of very, very serious crimes. This state of denial has been mimicked by the government for as long as these issues have been on the table. So, it is not surprising that in some communities of the country the police are looked at disdainfully and with distrust. This standoff has helped to nurture havens of criminality where the criminals are free to roam but the police are absolutely not welcome and they know it.

Hopefully, in all of its continuing engagements with the UK and Scotland Yard over police reforms, the government will come to understand that cosmetic changes or simply burnishing the image of Guyana's finest will not be enough. The police force has to be accountable and must truly uphold the law, not violate it.

The public and the police have to come to know and trust each other all over again. As religious leaders urged in their engagement with the police last week, there will have to be a heartfelt reaching out by the force to create healthy relations with communities.

But that will take time. Time that the police don't have on their side at the moment. This is the time for determined action against the criminal enterprise that has snuffed out lives and shackled the freedoms of so many and the police and the army must be wholeheartedly supported in this exercise.

Every conceivable measure of support must be offered by the government to the police and army in this fight so that order can be restored. Firepower, tactical planning and emergency response seem to be three of the continuing deficiencies. In recent engagements, the heavy firepower of the marauders has taken the police by surprise. In each exercise, be it a roadblock or raid, the police have to operate on the basis that they will be confronting criminals armed to the hilt and be equipped to reply in kind. The persistent problem of backup or reinforcements taking too long to respond continues. The three attackers on Friday fled into bushy terrain they were unlikely to be familiar with. In the middle of the afternoon there was enough time for a dedicated pursuit of the trio by the law enforcers. While the police and army have hugged the coastal infrastructure, the criminals seem to have mastered the backlands and their interconnectedness. This is a glaring deficiency that the joint services have to address.

In the East Bank Essequibo attack in which Claudette Ng-See-Quan was brutally gunned down, the criminals showed their versatility by invading from the sea and fleeing in a boat. For around twenty minutes, the police were not able to respond. How many other times has this not happened? Even though both the army and police are involved in Operation Tourniquet, the army was not notified immediately of the maritime getaway and had it been it might have been able to mobilise its motor boats to scour the area. These operational kinks must be ironed out if the police and army are to have any success in countering the criminals.

It continues to boggle the mind that the criminals are operating as if they have a well-established base or bases where everything necessary for their heinous crimes is being provided. Where did their arsenal come from or is coming from? How come they are so proficient in the use of heavy weaponry? Are they being trained somewhere removed from the always-prying eye of the Guyanese public or did they have prior exposure to these weapons? And now they have a boat at their disposal and an obviously skilled navigator. What is next?

In the increasingly bitter exchanges between the government and the opposition, it must be clear to both that no matter the extent of their differences, the deathly crime epidemic can bring no profit. Even in the absence of dialogue between the President and the Opposition leader, they still must discharge their obligations in coming down firmly on the side of law and order.

Much of the effort of the police and the army has been concentrated in areas that are traditional strongholds of the PNC/R and therefore it can play a positive role in assisting in mending relations and encouraging the residents of those communities to cooperate in the fight against crime.

Every group in civil society which can influence a positive response in the fight against crime must also put its hand up and step forward.