New wine, old bottles Editorial
Stabroek News
May 18, 2004

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Can Guyana's much-maligned Police Force which has been accused of a variety of transgressions from cold-blooded, extra-judicial killings and graft on the one hand, to complacency and sloth, on the other, be transformed into an efficient, people-oriented service that is capable of providing a satisfactory level of protection to the public?

New Commissioner of Police Winston Felix, now only about 75 days in office, seems to think so. Addressing the Annual Officer's Conference last month under the theme: "Restoring our Image through Honesty, Integrity, Effective Public Relations, and Efficient Public Service", Felix expressed his hope that the commitment of his senior officers would "transform the Guyana Police Force into the Guyana Police Service, through developing and displaying the knowledge, the humility and the skills to serve and protect all citizens of Guyana."

Mr Felix hoped, too, that his officers would learn to interact with local communities and earn the trust of law-abiding people and the respect of law-breakers by following "established rules of investigation, detention, search, pursuit, professional preservation of evidence, and prosecution." After decades of rough handling of the populace marked by abuses such as unexplained deaths and disappearances, dishonesty, unlawful detention, harassment and much more by rogue policemen, is such a sudden change possible?

Mr Felix has inherited command of a 165-year-old Force which, in addition to the general public's widespread misgivings also has serious internal problems caused by years of demoralisation of its personnel and deterioration of its physical infrastructure.

Mr Felix's biggest problem is likely to be that of his officers. Having served in the Force for over 30 years, he would be aware of the calibre, character and conduct of his colleagues which he can do little to change in the short term. He has already announced some transfers, including the removal of the Crime Chief who was at his post during the controversial crime wave which saw the homicide rate soar and witnessed the emergence of the notorious 'target squad', 'death squad' and 'phantom gang'.

Already this year, the Force's most senior officers have simply been promoted and moved around, actions which may not be sufficient to change their style of management and achieve lofty levels of public safety.

Mr Felix feels, correctly, that the most potent weapon in his armoury to bring crime under control is the confidence communities throughout the country have in the police. To achieve this near miracle, he outlined a menu of measures to his officers to: "take prompt action in response to reports; treat everyone fairly; be courteous; improve our investigative skills and pursue investigations as aggressively as we can; embark upon preventative methods of policing such as the re-introduction of the beat duty system in Georgetown; improve our media and public relations; and aggressively address quality of life issues such as the noise nuisance problem; strengthen the work of community policing groups to develop partnerships in communities."

The wine is new, but the wine bottles, alas, are old.

Most police records are still paper-based, permitting loss and tampering; forensic laboratories and scientific experts are not available; training opportunities from constable to commissioner are rudimentary and need to be supplemented by foreign trainers as evidenced by the recent visit of a UK SWAT team. The list of deficiencies is long.

Mr Felix's appointment as the new Commissioner was widely welcomed. The question remains whether he will be given sufficient new resources to provide the quality of public safety Guyana needs.