What police reform?

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

“The explosion in violence and drug-trafficking related crime… over the past decade has exposed some ugly truths about the nation’s public security institutions. Municipal and state police regularly lack sufficient resources and often rely on outdated equipment. Amongst the lowest paid public servants in the country, police departments experience exceptionally high turnover rates. Low salaries and lack of job security make police officers… particularly susceptible to corrupting influences. Widespread corruption and frequent cases of police participation in criminal enterprises — including extortion rackets, kidnapping, and murders — reinforce the woefully low levels of public trust and confidence resulting from regular citizen interactions with incompetent, unethical police officers.”

If that sounds like a description of the state of the Philippine National Police — its lack of sufficient resources, reliance on updated equipment, low salaries, and most specially its members’ susceptibility to corruption and the low levels of public trust it suffers from — it isn’t. The above paragraph is from a study on police reform in Mexico by Jeanna Cullinan, a Ph.D. student at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies of American University in Washington, DC. (http://www.tinker.org/content/look-police-reform. Retrieved Jan. 16, 2014.)

But Cullinan might as well have been describing the Philippine police, even though that description is inadequate. The police in this country have also been accused of habitually beating confessions out of suspects, committing human rights violations, and involvement in heinous crimes including the Ampatuan massacre of Nov. 23, 2009 in which dozens of police officers are among the accused trigger men.

Among citizens, the sense that the police aren’t doing their jobs is also common, and mostly fueled by mass perceptions that crime is out of control because of police ineptness or collusion with the criminals. Together with tales of police brutality or actual experience with it, those perceptions have led to low, and even non-existent, levels of public trust and confidence in the Philippine police.

Cullinan reports that given the problems of its police forces, “Mexico has undertaken an ambitious agenda of police reform at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Mexico’s strategy includes plans to improve police education, professional training, wages and benefits; adopt a merit-based system for career advancement and implement a variety of anti-corruption mechanisms.

“When trust in law enforcement is high,” Cullinan continues, “‘policing by consent’ is possible: citizens voluntarily cooperate by reporting crimes, providing information and participating in crime prevention. In Mexico’s current low-trust environment, reforms within the institution of policing alone are unlikely to yield significant, long-term reductions in crime rates.”

Boosting citizen trust and confidence in the police would then seem to be the first priority in any agenda of police reform in the Philippine setting, given the similarities in the problems of the Philippine police and those of Mexico.

The Philippine National Police does emphasize the need for community cooperation in combatting crime. But its appeals for citizen cooperation are not premised on the improvement of police education and professional training, and seem to be mostly based on the assumption that the sense of civic duty among citizens — not particularly high to begin with — would earn it the support it says it needs.

Cullinan suggests that “Public participation and cooperation can be encouraged through implementation of community policing strategies, where neighborhood foot patrols facilitate familiarity and information-sharing with residents; through external accountability mechanisms, which provide social control for police through citizen, neighborhood and business associations; and through a procedural justice approach, which emphasizes the importance of the perceived fairness of police actions and treatment of citizens.”

The plan to hire a private security agency to man the gates of police headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City, and to eventually expand the program to include other police camps across the country will supposedly increase police visibility in the communities by releasing policemen from guard duty. (For some odd reason, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda has also claimed that it will release policemen from clerical tasks. Does guarding camp gates qualify as a clerical task?)

Assuming that releasing an initial 100 policemen from guard duty at Crame will put that many police officers in the communities, the more fundamental issue is still whether the current levels of public trust and confidence will result in citizen cooperation with the police in addressing the crime problem. Obviously, what’s needed isn’t only higher police visibility in the communities, but upgrading the quality of that visibility.

Will the police be perceived as the citizens’ best friend or, as they are now perceived, their worst enemy? Transforming the police into the former will require retraining the police in those areas of police behavior that matter most: for example, in their treatment of citizens whether rich or poor, and the elimination of the police corruption — bribe solicitation, for example, and petty extortion — many citizens are familiar with.

In any event, the plan has met with near-universal skepticism. Lacierda claims that police officers will respect the security guards who would be deployed at the gates of Camp Crame once the appropriate directives are issued from above, because they’re “law abiding,” despite those examples, too numerous to list, which show that the problem we have with the police is that some policemen are not.

What’s more, the humongous budget for the change, P21 million, suggests that there will be, if it isn’t a done deal yet, a scramble for the contract, in the course of which some bidders are likely to be more equal than others. Since many security agencies are owned by retired police and military officers, it sounds like one more opportunity for the kind of graft and bid-rigging various government agencies, including the police, have been accused of. And wouldn’t that amount be better spent on upgrading police equipment or even salaries and benefits?

First things first: retrain the police, upgrade their equipment, and raise their salaries. Maybe — just maybe — that will amount to something resembling police reform.

Comments, blogs and other columns: www.luisteodoro.com, and www.cmfr-phil.org

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
January 16, 2014

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