By Dr Vishnu Bisram
FORMER Guyana Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud, opened up about his remarkable journey in law enforcement in his autobiography or memoir, Stepping Out of the Herd: My Life in the Guyana Police Force (2022).
The book took us through the humble life of young Seelall as he was growing up; life in Essequibo; his family life; his ancestors and his 33.5 years as a law enforcement officer; his rise through the police force (GPF) ranks to become the “top cop”; challenges and obstacles faced, including political interference and racism; reforming the GPF, and his forced retirement.
He also gave a brief overview or history of the Police Force (GPF) from its founding in 1838 and how it was used and abused as a controlling force of the population, rather than as an institution for law enforcement. He offers recommendations for reforming the force including on recruitment, training, promotion, and professionalism.
It is one of the finest books I have read, finding it gripping and quite engaging. I did not want to put it down after I started reading – the first time I did so for a book – and I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, in my student years and teaching career that spanned over five decades. He is brilliant.
I think it is the first book from a former Guyana Police Commissioner or anyone from the GPF. I wrote dozens of book reviews; this one gives me joy in penning about it. It is a critical appraisal of the GPF. The memoir is characterized by very good writing craft, excellent prose, choice of words, and diction. Writers of such a difficult subject and of events relating to policing, hardly write in such a lucid manner.
The book is timely because now more than ever, the police is under a microscope like never before because of political contamination and complaints of corruption. Seelall’s authority on the subject of improving law enforcement is profoundly useful. It is a riveting account of his police life and community involvement, the book presents not only a fascinating and colourful life at the heights of law-enforcement leadership, but the vision for the policing that the country sorely needed.
I do not hesitate in recommending it for readership and for research purposes, especially for students and those in academia in the fields of political science and sociology. It should be compulsory reading for all college students to know about various aspects of Guyana’s history, sociology, and politics.
I am most impressed with the use of language and free flow of the prose. Seelall writes so well. He is easily readable. There are a few typos and some chapters could do well with editing for continuity with the content of the preceding chapter. But overall, it is well written. Politicians should grab a copy and pay heed to the last couple chapters on reforming the force. He makes definitive statements.
“Out of The Herd” is a story of that career in full. The book reveals how Seelall had a dazzling rise through the GPF and ultimately had a dazzling career, becoming among the most famous police commissioners in Guyana’s history. In this vital memoir, Seelall revealed the inside stories of his family, his grandparents, his training as a police officer, and his policing career. He shared his candid experiences as a lawman from recruitment, undergoing training, being forced to consume beef against his cultural and religious upbringing, and his many encounters with criminals, politicians, and ordinary folk. His professionalism, integrity and reputation as a no-nonsense officer catapulted him to the position of police commissioner.
The son and grandson of farmers, Seelall grew up in rural Essequibo and also spent time during school breaks on the islands with cousins. He came from very humble beginnings, receiving his primary and secondary education on the Essequibo Coast. He loved cricket. He told how he lived a life marked by relative poverty and deprivation and experiencing racism and yet soared through the GPF ranks, He stated that he lived by the cultural values of his ancestors and parents and carried those in his training as a law-enforcement officer and through his career as well as in his life.
He moved to the capital city of Georgetown and later Timehri for training as a police officer. Initially, he toyed with the idea of joining the defence force, but his older brother pointed out the disadvantage that he would have had to be stationed on the borders of Guyana and be away from family.
The brother goaded him towards the police force. He entered the police academy, underwent the training and graduated with distinction. He was assigned duties far away from home in the deep interior of the country before settling down in Georgetown.
He served with honour, living and enforcing the values he learned growing up as a young man that would carry him through 33.5 years in the force, acting with integrity, courage, decisiveness, loyalty, and patriotism to the force and to the nation. He tried to build public confidence in law enforcement where his predecessors failed. He set out a programme to build trust between the police force and communities with high crime rates. He wanted the police force to be a professional force that must do what is right.
The book addressed controversial topics and offers insights into the challenges the GPF faces – recruitment and training of cadets, anti-Indian racism, police morale, corruption inside the force, political interference in law enforcement, and so much more.
He shed light on anti-crime measures; youth programmes to get gangs off the streets; the prison breakout and the so-called “Buxton Uprising,” the “Fineman” gang, the “Phantom” gang and individuals tied to them; Lusignan and Bartica massacres; the capture of violent criminals; Roger Khan; drug trafficking; the Colombian connection; his training in the UK, USA and Brazil; shootouts with violent criminals; corruption among some elements of the force; declining morale and political directives of the coalition that compromised his professionalism and that of the force, and much more.
Seelall was dismayed by the corruption among some police officers, especially among the old guard, and it is fair to say that the corrupt was upset with him for cracking down on them. He made passing reference to Burnhamism and the banning of foods. He gave chilling accounts of terrorist plots against political opponents during the dictatorship and harassments during the tenure of the coalition (2015-2018, the year he retired).
He described his experiences with politicians, including President Cheddi Jagan, Bharrat Jagdeo, Donald Ramotar, David Granger, Khemraj Ramjattan, Basil Williams, and Winston Felix. He also gave accounts of how some of his colleagues undermined him.
Seelall came to be known as a tough leader and a fixer of problems, who was not afraid to address complex matters. His interest in fighting crime cannot be denied. Although the GPF was politically compromised during the dictatorship, and had a bias towards the PNC, he acted professionally and did not take political sides.
He was quite upset when he was told that police officers were expected to vote PNC and when instructed how to vote and witnessed by his commander, marking the X next to the PNC’s palm tree symbol in the December 1985 fraudulent elections. He accepted at the time that was the way things were done in the force – politically compromising. After working with various departments within the GPF, including overseeing intelligence, and when he became PC, Seelall tried to transform the force.
He suggested reinvention of the GPF to meet growing challenges but without support. He tried to slash crime rates and professionalize the vocation of the cop by providing computerized training in filing reports.
Zara Realty (Sobhraj family) of New York equipped the force with a computer training lab. Seelall tried to use computers to revolutionize the force, especially in reporting and keeping tabs on crimes and to combat crime with modern data-driven policing. Efforts at reform were stymied. He did not receive support from the then coalition administration to modernize and reform the force. He was confident that he could right the force. If he had been given support and was kept on the job, he would have reduced crime considerably.
Seelall’s career has not been without controversy, certainly under the PNC-led coalition administration. There was the crisis of relations between himself and the coalition, a crisis inflamed by a virtual non-issue relating to then President, David Granger.
Seelall was sent on leave while an inquiry was launched into why he did not investigate a benign (non-serious, jovial) threat against Granger that was reported some five months later and that turned out to be “bogus” after investigation. It was a plot to get rid of Seelall hatched by a senior officer. The case against Seelall fell apart. Yet, he was not kept in his substantive position and unjustifiably sent on leave until retirement age.
This is one of the finest autobiographies I have read and an authoritative account of life inside the GPF. It is a frank, forthright, free-spoken, open, plain, straightforward, candid account of the culture of the police force and his training and enforcement experience as a police officer and how politicians compromised the force, using it for their political agenda rather than for law enforcement.
Seelall’s no-holds barred autobiography of his career as a tough, honest policeman, who rose from a young farm boy to a cadet to the “top cop” of the nation, is a must-read.