The Guyana Police Force (GPF) is not one of the better-liked public institutions in Guyana. Over the years, its reputation has steadily plummeted in the estimation of the citizenry that they are supposed to “Serve and Protect”. However, last Monday there was a wreath-laying ceremony to honour the memory of those policemen who had fallen in the line of duty since 1913. What was amazing about the statistics released was that of the 56 policemen killed between 1913 and 2010, 32 or over 57 percent had been murdered in the last decade.
It would seem that the business of policing has undergone quite a qualitative change in the first decade of this millennium: it has become much more dangerous to be a policeman. But the increased risk faced by members of the force has not been translated into greater sympathy for them. Part of the reason is a product of history.
The GPF was founded directly after the abolition of slavery (the so-called “apprenticeship” period was just another name for the continuation of slavery for another four years) because the British feared that the ex-slaves would challenge them physically. It is not a coincidence that most of the older police stations on the coast are near or in African villages or that the early policemen were mostly Barbadians.
As the ex-slaves soon demonstrated that they merely wanted to get on with their lives in freedom, the indentured servants brought in to undercut their bargaining power were identified as the threat – with their cutlasses and machetes. The colonial order exploited the situation by implementing differential recruitment policies that favoured Africans and shut out Indians. However, the modus operandi of the force – it was an armed, centralised militaristic one, unlike the London Metropolitan Force, for instance – was unchanged. It was deployed against all groups by the ruling class to suppress their struggle for justice and freedom.
It was the GPF, for instance, that evicted freedmen from crown lands and shot at African urban protesters during uprisings such as the one in 1905. The first policeman killed on the list released by the GPF on Emancipation Day was interestingly categorised as “killed at Plantation Rosehall Canje, Berbice by armed strikers” in 1913. The facts actually are that after continued breaking of promises to sugar workers and harassment through court action and expulsion, the riot act was read as workers tried to prevent the expulsion: fourteen workers were killed. In 1924 mixed protesting crowds marching towards Georgetown were fired upon by police and 13 were killed.
From the foregoing, one may begin to get a glimmer of the origin of the distrust of the populace towards the GPF. One would have thought that with the withdrawal of the British, the native governments would have reoriented and reformed the GPF to actually carry out their mandate to serve and protect rather than oppress and exploit the citizens. But as in so many other post-colonial societies, the new governments have interpreted their roles as merely stepping into the shoes of their old masters. These authoritarian governments see the police as vehicles for enforcing their personal rule.
Over the last two decades, there have been quite a number of initiatives to reform the GPF. The thrust of these can be encapsulated in one suggestion for a new name for the institution – the Guyana Police Service. That is, the Police must undergo a thorough makeover to alter it from an authoritarian entity to one that serves the society. Most recently, the Disciplined Forces Commission Report – with 164 recommendations that touch on all the several forces, but especially the Police – has finally been approved by Parliament after being buried for six years in committee.
It is high time that the recommendations are operationalised. In the course of the ongoing elections campaign we expect that the political parties elaborate on their position on Police Reform. Mr Donald Ramotar, the PPP’s candidate, has promised a SWAT unit to confront the newer and deadlier threats to policemen. This is a good beginning but reforms must be wider and deeper.
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