A failure that has to be addressed
February 10, 2003
When the prison break-out of February 23 last year and the ensuing events are analysed in the future a number of things will stand out starkly and befuddle.
One of these is the brutal slaughter of 19 policemen, two anti-narcotics officers and one prison officer. All told, 22 law enforcement officers have died at the hands of gunmen in just under a year. Of course, a large number of householders and businessmen have also been brutally murdered and they, too, must not be forgotten.
The murder of law enforcement officers is particularly numbing as their clear targeting strikes at the heart of an ordered society and only great disorder can follow. The continued murderous attacks on the police represent a clear and present danger to Guyana. Similarly disturbing and painting a very bleak picture of the criminal justice system is the astonishing inability of the police force to bring to justice those responsible for these heinous crimes.
Twenty-two law enforcement officers have been gunned down. Yet in the year that has followed not one person has been committed to stand trial for any of the murders. Not one. In the early days of the crime rampage charges were laid against the escapees, two of whom are still on the run, but these have not been tested in court. A charge against another man for the killing of a Rose Hall policeman was recently withdrawn. The end result is that no one has been brought to book for the murder of a law enforcement officer. Yet, 22 law enforcers have been laid to rest while trying to uphold the tenets of the criminal justice system which is now unable to apportion justice to them and their families.
As is customary, there has been a lot of unsubstantiated assignment of responsibility for these killings. On the death of every well known bandit or even those not so well known, the police could be expected to provide a list of crimes - including murder - believed to have been committed by the criminal. The firearm/s found on these persons are also traced via ballistics and placed at scenes of crimes. Sometimes it is all too neat but it is far from what the criminal justice system should be providing.
The failure to apprehend and successfully prosecute suspects in the killings of policemen over the last year is the result of a comprehensive breakdown in the law enforcement system over decades. Successive governments have failed to act and on February 23 last year, a band of prison escapees with AK-47s and willing recruits exposed the full extent of the collapse of our law enforcement system.
For the beleaguered police force, a sad truth has to be accepted. In places like Buxton and parts of the capital where its crude methods are reviled, it has gotten no support from the public. It cannot rely on it to provide valuable information.
The intelligence and undercover capacity of the police force has also been effectively whittled away over many years. So that reservoir of crucial information on the whereabouts of criminals, their modus operandi and evidence has been lost.
This vicious cycle came full circle with the use of undue force by the police over a number of years leading to tragic consequences and the albatross of extra-judicial killings.
A substantial amount of money has been given by the government to the police and army over the last year to help them to level the battlefield. There have been some successes but the bandits still strike with impunity whenever they want and run rings around the police and the army. Money alone won't even the scales. It is time that the police force invest more time and resources in trying to win back the support of the public so that it can rely on their civic obligation to bring closure to heinous crimes. In this very difficult period witnesses to testify against the gunmen and killers will be in short supply. But what about ballistics and other forensic evidence? It shouldn't only be introduced on the death of a suspect. It should be presented in court by capable prosecutors who can win convictions.
The British government is at the moment providing aid to help revamp the police force. The Guyana Government should use this assistance to institute sweeping changes in policing so normative outcomes such as the full prosecution of the guilty become the rule rather than the exception.
If the police can't successfully prosecute the killers of their own members what confidence could the public have that justice will be done in cases in which they are involved?