Regional Joint Support Team
By Stabroek News
June 20, 2021
The public made a discovery on Monday, and so, it might be added, did the opposition. The revelation came almost incidentally in the National Assembly during the course of consideration of a supplementary allocation for the Guyana Defence Force, among others. The sum allocated to the GDF specifically was $700 million, and the House was informed it was to be expended on a new crime-fighting unit called the Regional Joint Support Team.
Leader of the Opposition Joseph Harmon, himself a former army officer, asked the pertinent question as to whether there was a Regional Joint Support Team in the GDF, because if so, he had never heard of it. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance, Gail Teixeira then replied that it was a “new initiative” which had been set up to aid the crime-fighting capacity of the Guyana Police Force and that it would consist of members of the GDF and GPF. More recruits from those two forces, she said, would be engaged if the need arose. The budgetary allocation, she further told MPs, was to provide the resources that would be required in order for the Team to be established and function.
The supplementary allocation, however, is a secondary issue; the primary one in the first instance concerns when the decision was taken, and at what level. While she was reticent on most aspects relating to the new organisation, Ms Teixeira did inform the House that it was decided on by the Defence Board “around April this year” with the purpose of “develop[ing] operational capacity in crime-fighting.” This is all very mysterious. How come the public was not informed by public announcement or even a press release in April that we would be getting a new force tasked, it seems, with the same function as the GPF, but attached to the military? Did Minister Kwame McCoy fall down on the job? Or is it that the intention was to keep it hidden and then slide it through Parliament under cover of a supplementary allocation?
It was not as if Ms Teixeira was particularly forthcoming on details. Questions, for example, were asked about the hierarchy of this latest addition to the security forces of the nation. But that, apparently, is a secret matter relating to issues of national security which she claimed she was not at liberty to divulge. And as for the question put by MP Ganesh Mahipaul about the material and supplies being requested for the Team, that too, it appears, was a secret matter which could not be provided for security reasons. It has puzzled citizens scratching their heads as to what the new force will really be doing if this level of clandestineness is required.
In a moment of unaccustomed candour the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs did say that the teams would be operating in all ten regions of Guyana, with bases being set up at various locations. But exactly where these bases will be was not something which the opposition succeeded in extracting from Ms Teixeira, although from the vagueness of her responses the impression was conveyed that the government did not fully know yet. If they do, then it would qualify as yet another case of secret information being withheld for ‘security’ reasons.
What MPs did learn was that 33 vehicles would be acquired for the Team consisting of one car as well as a number of pick-ups and All-Terrain Vehicles. Divided across all ten regions that does not appear to supply a high degree of mobility to the new force, even if it is intended to concentrate more resources in one region as opposed to another. However, among the line items were listed “air, land and water transport” as well as “other”, so the Team may turn out to be infinitely better equipped than the assignment of 33 vehicles might suggest. Of course, we still do not know exactly how large the Regional Joint Support Team is intended to be.
It was former Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan who rose to say that the function of the new force was “obviously crime-fighting” not national security, yet they were not able to “scrutinize and interrogate crime-fighting.” It was an appropriate question, but Ms Teixeira tried to evade it by maintaining she was not aware it was a question. The Minister’s avoidance notwithstanding, Mr Ramjattan’s point was well made: how does national security enter into crime-fighting?
But there is a larger issue here. How in a democracy does a government create what sounds like a parallel police force since it is outside the control of the police and was not preceded by the passage of any special legislation, and yet does not consider it necessary to inform the public or answer parliamentary questions about it? The new force is just sneaked in, and there is no prior debate, no consultations, no explanations, no justifications. This is how authoritarian regimes operate, not democratic ones. For her part, Ms Teixeira said that the unit would not usurp the authority of the GPF which like the GDF operates under statute and the constitution. “This is about enhancing the capacity of the law enforcement agencies with the support of the GDF in being able to fight crime,” she said. “Whether it’s narcotics, whether it’s other forms of crime, it is there to work and support each other and therefore this is not to become a hysterical thing. These are two properly functioning bodies that will work in collaboration with each other in a newer and different structure.”
So what exactly is going on? The Police Force has always been perceived in political terms by both major parties, although the various PPP/C regimes have always had the greater problem with it since its members are viewed as mostly supporting the PNC. Their response has been not to try and create a professional force divorced from political considerations, but to work with select individuals within the hierarchy and groups below who would answer to them. They saw this as necessary for their own security, but the result has been the fragmentation of the GPF.
As things stand currently the hierarchy of the Police Force is in total disarray, and when or even whether that situation will be resolved is by no means clear. What the government wants is a force which it can control, where it is not encumbered by Police Commissions or Police Associations and where it can have more direct power over appointments. This is much more easily accomplished in the case of the military where President Irfaan Ali is the Commander-in-Chief, and accounts for why the new crime-fighting organisation is to be set up under the auspices of the GDF.
Where crime-fighting is concerned, the army does not have the powers of the police, which is why even when soldiers are brought out onto the streets to help in special situations they have to have police personnel with them, barring the declaration of a state of emergency. How large the new force will be initially has not been revealed; how many senior officers there will be has not been revealed; whether the head will come from the army has not been revealed; how appointments will be made has not been revealed – will it be a question of secondment, or recruitment via an application process? And what will be the relationship of the members to their original forces; will they be able to return to them if they wish? And by which rules is this team going to operate – those specified under the Police Act? How many of the senior officers will be drawn from the GDF, and how familiar will they be with the law as it relates to crime and what the police can and cannot do with regard to suspects? In addition, what happens when the police and the Team turn up at the same crime scene? Who takes precedence?
The fact that the government has gone to great lengths to avoid answering these and myriad other questions, does it no credit. The danger with units such as this which are not corralled by the law and police convention is that they can go rogue and become a threat to human rights. At the very minimum the citizens of this country are entitled to an infinitely better account of what this new initiative involves, and have their questions answered whether those are raised within Parliament or outside it.
But it may be that the government’s secrecy about the whole issue is because they are conscious of something raised by Mr Ramjattan. The problem, he said in Parliament, is that the Regional Joint Support Team is not constitutional. “They cannot go and set up a force like that, separate from the GDF and separate from the Police Force,” he also told this newspaper in an invited comment on Thursday, going on to explain that crime-fighting comes under the Police Act. The inclusion of the GDF was what made it unconstitutional, he said: “They are always a supplementary force for purposes to help the police, but they cannot be a frontline force.”
If he is correct then the likelihood is that the administration will face a legal challenge. In such circumstances it would be a lesson to them on the consequences in this day and age of trying to circumvent the constitution, which would be something of an irony in their case. Whatever the outcome of any such potential challenge, by their modus operandi in this instance they have already undermined their credibility as upholders of an open society.
Regional Joint Support Team