The police and the law Editorial
Stabroek News
March 9, 2003

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It was bound to happen. Sooner or later the police were fated to fire unprovoked on young men who had no criminal record, who had not appeared on any wanted poster and who had no connection with known bandits. The exact thought processes of the two policemen who decided to open up on a car carrying unarmed citizens going about their legitimate business may never be known, but the underlying causes of what happened are not far to seek.

Much has been written this past week about profiling. While prima facie, at least, there is reason to believe that either conscious or subliminal profiling occurred in this instance, that is far from being the whole story. Such an explanation might account for the police selecting this particular vehicle for a stop and search exercise, for example, but it cannot account on its own for them shooting into the car unless other factors were also at work.

The first of these quite simply is the fact that although the GPF has suddenly found itself the beneficiary of Rav4’s, bullet-proof vests and automatic weapons, there has been no corresponding upgrading in the department of training. Acting Commissioner McDonald can recite the ‘rules of engagement’ ad nauseam at press briefings, but there is no evidence that his officers have internalized these, or have been properly educated in the exercise of judgement. All we have at the moment is a more lethally armed law enforcement agency functioning at exactly the same level as it did before its members climbed into their new body armour and picked up their recently issued ‘long’ guns.

This training deficiency is particularly dangerous in a context where officers have been the target of bandits, and where the temptation for revenge will be strong. In an absence of the self-discipline which good training inculcates, the emotion of fear and the motive of retribution will not be under proper control. Add this to a contraction in the repertoire of professional responses of some segments of the force, then the shooting of suspects will become the preferred police action in certain situations, rather than their arrest.

But of course, proper training only has meaning if it takes place within a framework of respect for the law. And if there is one factor above all others responsible in an underlying sense for what happened a week last Saturday, it is that the police force over the years has been given carte blanche by the Government to operate outside the law. The earlier killings by law enforcement officers of an illegal nature mostly involved people whom the GPF claimed had a criminal history, had criminal associations, were wanted men, or were armed. While these extra-judicial killings angered the African constituency and the party which represented it, the same was not true (in a general sense) of the Government’s Indian constituency.

Battered by banditry, many Indians have been reluctant to entertain accusations against the police force on which they depend for their security, or to doubt the veracity of the GPF’s sometimes contradictory and less than credible press releases. Their attitude has tended to reflect the position that officers were taking action against criminals and were therefore making the community safer.

President Jagdeo and his Government have followed a similar line and have attacked with some venom all those who would criticize the force, especially the Target Special Squad (TSS). Ever ready to see conspiracies, the governing party has accused those who have raised questions about extra-judicial killings as trying to undermine the GPF with some sinister political aim in mind.

While their fears about the African-dominated security forces are understandable, their solutions to the problem have been disastrous. Until the middle of last year, they starved the police of equipment, ignored issues of demoralization, professionalism and the culture of the ‘raise,’ and resided all their faith in the ‘elite’ TSS. One can only conclude that they perceived their security as being intimately tied up with this squad, which is why they protected it so fiercely, despite the unsavoury evidence about the activities of some of its members which emerged from the Thomas Carroll case, and despite the fact that its questionable killings and thuggish ways earned this country a degree of unwanted international attention which surely they could have done without.

It must be said that the undermining of the professionalism of the GPF and the process of demoralization did not start under this Government. However, since they have done nothing to arrest the situation and have given cover to some police illegalities, it has deteriorated dramatically. The extra-judicial killings have also had far-reaching political consequences, while the corruption in the force has alienated everyone in some way; who nowadays feels confident enough about the police to give them information? And without intelligence how can they possibly expect to catch bandits and in the long run have an impact on crime?

The police themselves too are paying in a painful way for the illegal killings perpetrated mostly by the TSS. Now a force which up until March last year had one of the lowest rates in the world for officers killed in the line of duty, has itself become a target. This too, perhaps, has constituted an additional reason why the Government has been so resistent to holding an independent inquiry into the TSS in particular, and the police in general. They have, perhaps, proceeded on the fallacious assumption that to allow such an inquiry would in some sense be ‘betraying’ their protectors at a time when they are being killed, and that an investigation would in any case only serve to undermine the esprit de corps of the GPF even further.

They are very wrong. As indicated above, part of the true price that is being paid for a police force which operates outside the law is exemplified by what happened to Mr Yohance Douglas and his friends the week before last. The answer to the banditry lies not in a free hand for any special squad, but in a professional police force which knows the law and is constrained by it. The recently appointed police chief for Los Angeles was shown on 60 Minutes last week as telling his officers that breaking the law in order to enforce the law was unacceptable in any circumstances. It is an admonition that the President of Guyana, the Minister of Home Affairs and the Commissioner of Police need to take to heart.

It is true that the Government has agreed in principle to the disbandment of the TSS, and the setting up of a SWAT team. However, if all they intend to do is to transfer a significant proportion of the members of the TSS who lack the requisite ethics to the SWAT team, then the whole purpose of the exercise would be defeated.

In our Friday edition, Mr Yohance Douglas’s brother, Orin, expressed the view that his sibling was special, and that maybe God chose him for a task so that he could bring about change in the society. If there is any good at all which can come out of a tragedy of this kind, then that would be it.

As the African community (as opposed to high-profile members of it, who have already spoken out) moves closer to an understanding of the suffering the Indian community has had to endure, so too can the latter community through the death, injury and trauma of innocent African youngsters at the hands of the police, move closer to an understanding of what the African community has been experiencing.

And as for the Government, its duty is clear in this instance: it must ensure that the law takes its course without fear or favour. The nation waits anxiously to see the outcome of this case.

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