Eyewitness: Justice…

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…and the Police

The long-awaited verdict on Policeman Dennis Chauvin’s trial for killing George Floyd came in on Tuesday. And it says a lot that folks were relieved when it was declared as “murder”. Meaning they weren’t sure till the end that the jury wasn’t gonna let him off. We all know the facts of the case…we’ve all seen the tape…and we’ve all been part of the discussion in the last year, passively or actively; so, your Eyewitness doesn’t have to repeat them.

What he’d like to do – as he always tries to do in these matters – is to contextualise the broader issue in terms of our lived reality in Guyana. The George Floyd case was all about policing in America, so what are some lessons about policing in Guyana. Obviously, Guyana isn’t America – although lots of folks wish it were – but, as an institution, policing everywhere is subjected to similar systemic challenges, since they all have to perform the same function: keeping order in society.

The Police are thus the most ubiquitous arm of the State that’s visible to the ordinary citizen, and are given a lot of power. This includes the ultimate power of the State – to take the lives of citizens if they determine the “order” of society – including their own lives – are at risk. To deal with this potential “threat”, States have organised the Police in a very militarised manner from its beginning in the 19th century. And while there’ve been reforms since, the militarised orientation stubbornly persists.

In Guyana, there’s been, for decades, talk of addressing this orientation by renaming the Police as the “Police Service” rather than “Police Force” – and changing their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPS) to operationalise the “kinder, gentler” approach. But we haven’t gotten anywhere, have we? In America, they’ve long recognised that, in a racially diverse society, part of the problem is that some groups who are underrepresented in the Police are also the butt of inordinate force – like with the African-American Floyd. This has also been the case in Guyana, but nothing’s ever been done about it.

The accountability of the Police is always an issue: with that much power, it’s always open to abuse. Take the force that was used to subdue Floyd: we all agree it was excessive (to state the obvious) but that’s only because one person had a smartphone to video the incident. But how about that Police killing that 18-year-old Sewdatt at Cotton Tree? They say he was attacking them with a cutlass…but the parents insist that he was merely a bystander. Will that poor boy, whose life was snuffed out, ever get justice?
And will the Police “force” ever become a Police “service”?

…and institutional culture

The legendary management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. He, of course, was talking about business culture and its impact on management strategies for achieving their goals and objectives. Unless you change the culture of the business you wish to be successful, even if you come up with the best strategy in the world, it’ll fail.

And we return to our Police Force, where we therefore should be spending a hell of a lot more of our time on changing its culture to one of “service” if we ever expect to have less arbitrary Police killings and other abuses here. We have to start with recruitment, and this means increased salaries to discourage seeing their role as hustling lunch money. The training will also have to involve a thorough inculcation of the basic courtesies that the Police should extend to citizens. Have you ever been stopped by the Police on the road?
We’ve had too many George Floyds here. And they all supposedly had cutlasses.

…and politics

When the PNC returned to power after 23 years, it was clear that, under Granger, they’d learnt nothing. He, like Burnham, was cynical about the judiciary and Police and moved to subvert them.
The judiciary must stand firm.