A high price for not being vigilant Editorial
Stabroek News
October 21, 2002

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The Guyana Police Force is now to be equipped with an air wing to help it combat the insidious crime cartel that has put the country under physical and mental siege. Were it as simple as acquiring a fleet of helicopters and sending them up in the air, the populace would heave a collective sigh of relief. Sadly, it is not that simple.

What the February 23 prison break-out has taught the citizenry is that there is a significant lag time between the effective reform of the police force and the capture and containment of the criminals. In the context of the air corps, the interval will be manifested in the sourcing of funds, the identification of an appropriate supplier, the raised eyebrows of the multilateral financial institutions we continue to be beholden to, the actual sealing of a contract, the supply of the choppers, training local crews in their use and maintenance and strategic and operational deployment. It could take some time, much longer than the period between the prison break and now.

This lag period is reflective of almost every other part of law enforcement in the crime wave that has strait-jacketed the country. The acquisition of protective and offensive gear is a classic example. It is still underway nearly eight months after the Camp Street jail-break. The beefing up of the forensics and analytic capacity of the force, the mobilisation of special purposes squads outside of the discredited Target Special Squad, the activation and gathering of useful intelligence from assets on the ground in the nerve centres of criminal activity, the transformation of the force into an all-terrain outfit and the training of key officers are others. Even simpler areas like the hiring of skilled drivers for police operations have found the force wanting. Several confrontations have fizzled out after police vehicles crashed or guns jammed, etc.

One area where the results continue to be appalling is the gathering of intelligence. To date, there has not been a single raid where either the police or the army has captured important wanted men. A few cases where there have been tip-offs have ended with wanted men being found dead after high-octane shoot-outs.

Based on the latest information released by the government, no less than $200M has been spent on weaponry, protective gear, transportation and communications facilities. More is also to be spent, a lot more.

And it is not only in the accoutrements of policing and operational details that this haste and spend attitude is evident. The hurried promulgation of legislation in several areas is another example. Nevertheless, these varied measures are all welcome even though the common cry is that their impact is limited. The criminals continue to plan and outfox the law enforcement arms.

There is a great lesson to be learnt from the current crisis we are in.

Successive PPP/Civic governments failed miserably to detect and act upon the latent threats to law and order that slowly but purposefully grew into the catastrophe we are now in. The warnings from the media and others were numerous.

So too were the jail escapes and shocking attacks by gangs from time to time.

The havoc wrought by Linden London was not used to ready the law enforcement agencies for better-prepared criminals.

Throughout all of this, the home affairs ministers and others in the government entrusted with the responsibility for security twiddled their thumbs without demonstrating that they understood the scope of the threat.

Whenever this period is reflected on, the trigger for the mayhem this year will be attributed to the bloody escape of five dangerous criminals from the Camp Street jail. The government failed to heed consistently delivered warnings about the overcrowded jails, poor treatment of prisoners and lax security. The worst fears of citizens were realised on February 23. Then it got worse. The escapees and the other who joined their numbers were equipped with an arsenal that overpowered the police and left them on the defensive for extended periods. The escape of the five coupled with access to this arsenal made a mockery of the decade of "efforts" by PPP/Civic governments to enforce the rule of law and order. It exposed nakedly all of the shortcomings of the police force starting with the unwillingness of the public to cooperate with them for years of heavy-handed tactics, their poor protective gear and firepower, their inability to plan tactical operations to capture criminals, their inability to tap intelligence sources and their inability to build and prosecute cases against criminals. As it stands, 10 of their number have been killed since April and numerous others injured and maimed. Yet this tragedy is far from being brought under control and the killings continue.

It is a compelling case study for the government of the high price of not being vigilant. The cost is not only reflected in the large sums that have to be expended on guns and now helicopters and armoured cars. It is reflected in the high death and injury toll, the loss of peace of mind of citizens, the loss of control over certain villages and the palpable threat to the state itself. It is a lesson that this government must take to heart.