Not your ideal police force

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PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III has refused to apologize to the relatives of the eight Hongkong tourists killed during the hostage- taking incident at Manila’s Rizal Park on August 23, 2010. Declaring in a speech during the first anniversary of that incident that the Philippine government regretted it, but that it was not right for the slain tourists’ kin to blame the entire country, Mr. Aquino was apparently also addressing the Hongkong government, which since the incident has warned its residents to stay away from the Philippines, thereby costing the country millions in lost tourism revenues.

Mr. Aquino’s refusal to apologize for the incident has most probably earned him brownie points among the population, particularly that part of it that believes it an affront to the entire country for the government to be apologizing to anyone, especially to people from another Asian country.

The “nationalists” among us — those who equate the government with the nation, and who therefore bridle at any suggestion that their government did something wrong, but who won’t lift a finger to make things right in this country of lost hopes — were in fact so concerned with the trappings rather than the substance of sovereignty last year they were screaming epithets at the Aquino government. But not for its officials’ mishandling the incident — for first releasing to Hongkong the report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) that Mr. Aquino had created to look into how the country’s officials handled the incident.

Since then Mr. Aquino has taken the greatest pains to appease this sector, and his refusal to apologize is all of a piece with its views, including its assumption that the government is the nation.

And yet the slain tourists’ relatives were not blaming the entire country for the death of their kin, only the government. As the brother of one of the dead said, what they want is a formal apology from the Philippine government, “because (the government) made many silly mistakes and many decisions during the whole incident. Someone has to come out to take responsibility for this, and someone has to compensate all those hurt by the whole incident.”

In short: what the slain hostages’ kin are asking for is for the government to accept responsibility for something that happened within its jurisdiction, which it could have prevented, or least controlled its outcome through competent crisis management. Last year the Aquino government implicitly recognized that its officials had bungled. The IIRC report in fact recommended the filing of criminal and administrative charges against 13 government officials, while also recommending sanctions against three radio broadcasters and three television news networks.

Mr. Aquino, however, forwarded the report for further study to his legal advisers, who ended up practically exonerating everyone involved, including the five most responsible police officers who were on the scene. Against three of these officers only administrative charges have been filed, of which only one had been decided as of last week.

The one case that has been decided is that of Director Leocadio Santiago, then chief of the National Capital Region Police Office during the hostage taking. Charged with neglect of duty, Santiago was suspended for a mere 11 days by the National Police Commission (Napolcom).

The administrative cases against the four other police officers are still being heard by Napolcom, 13 hearings having been conducted in the cases of Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, then director of the Manila Police District (MPD); Superintendent Orlando Yebra, the hostage negotiator; Chief Inspector Santiago Pascual, MPD Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit commander; and Senior Police Officer 2 Gregorio Mendoza, the brother of hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza.

Thirteen hearings in one year comes to an average of one hearing a month, which, together with the 11 days’ suspension of Santiago, helps explain why the slain tourists’ relatives want an apology from the government, given the impression the latter is giving that it’s not really interested in taking responsibility for the incident by punishing those who mishandled it so badly nine people including the hostage-taker were killed.

While the behavior of some of the media people covering the incident “bordered on the criminal,” as Mr. Aquino declared last year, police incompetence so egregious no one including the Hongkong government could have missed it killed the tourists. But it’s not only police incompetence that kills. Policemen are also pro-actively skilled in that area of expertise: they constitute the majority of the suspected killers and/or masterminds in the killing of journalists in the Philippines, for example.

One of the first killers of journalists to be convicted was a policeman, whom his superiors earlier hid when ordered arrested by the courts for the murder of Pagadian City broadcaster Edgar Damalerio in 2003. In the Ampatuan town massacre of November 23, 2009, 20 policemen are among those accused of conspiring to kill, and actually shooting, 58 men and women, including 32 journalists and media workers.

Saving lives is not the Philippine police’s strong suit. Taking them is, either out of incompetence, corruption, or plain nastiness and common garden-variety inhumanity. Countless incidents including the August 23 hostage taking have demonstrated the urgent need for police reform in terms not only of enhancing police skills and competence and rooting out the corruption that has taken the deepest roots in the organization, but also, and even more fundamentally, developing among them a decent respect for life and human rights.

The most that has been done along these lines is to hold human rights seminars, which policemen attend with the firm conviction that these are mere rituals they have to undergo, and from which, once over, they can go back to torturing suspects into confessing, executing others and throwing them into garbage dumps, protecting illegal gambling, carjacking and prostitution, or even running crime syndicates themselves. This is not a police force likely to have handled the August 23 incident so well everyone could have walked away from it unhurt.

Mr. Aquino fancies himself a reform President, although what he’s done so far is to make noises to that effect and to adopt the same policies as his predecessor. Police reform is one area where he can do wonders — or where he can at least try to do something. His decision not to apologize for the bungling of the August 23, 2010 incident was his to make. But let’s hope that he won’t have to not apologize again for a similar incident in the future.

(BusinessWorld)

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