Few would be surprised if a policeman appeared in the list of suspects in the Maundy Thursday killing of journalist Marlene Esperat. Policemen, after all, have their fingerprints all over the 2002 killing of Pagadian City journalist Edgar Damalerio.

The alleged triggerman was an active duty policeman when Damalerio was shot dead on a busy Pagadian street in May three years ago. The city police did all it could to mislead the media and the prosecutors of the case. At one point the police implicated the witnesses in the killing and named a local criminal, who was not in Pagadian at the time of the murder, as the killer.

When, as a result of the efforts of Damalerio’s family as well as media advocacy groups, the National Bureau of Investigation filed charges so the suspect could be detained, he somehow managed to leave the police camp, where he was supposed to be in the custody of his superiors, before a warrant of arrest could be served on him.

The suspect did not disappear, but hid in plain view. He was seen moving around Pagadian and surrounding areas, and had enough freedom of movement for Damalerio’s family and the witnesses to his murder to fear for their lives. Apparently, someone also had the influence to cause the witnesses to be removed from the government’s witness protection program. It took the efforts of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, an alliance of four national media organizations, to have them returned to the program.

That did not prevent the killing of Edgar Amoro, a witness who was with Damalerio at the time he was killed. Like Damalerio also a journalist who had courageously stood by his testimony that he saw a policeman kill his colleague, Amoro became the first Filipino journalist killed this year when he was shot dead last February.

The suspect in the Damalerio case, who had been dismissed from the police in 2003, had surrendered late last year. But behind every killer for hire is a mastermind. In the Damalerio case, a former Pagadian City police chief has been frequently mentioned as the brains behind the killing. It’s not only because Damalerio had been looking into and criticizing police corruption at the time he was killed. Another killer for hire had told the NBI that the former police chief had asked him to kill Damalerio for P50,000, but was himself killed before he could testify.

In the Marlene Esperat killing, a police colonel and his son have been mentioned as possibly involved, as of now because they had been among the subjects of Esperat’s weekly column in the Tacurong community newspaper Midland Review.

The Central Mindanao Police Director has refused to identify the police officer. But Esperat’s husband George had earlier told the media of his suspicions that Willie Dangane, the police chief of General Santos City, could have had his wife killed. Besides subjecting him to withering criticism in her columns, Esperat had also sued Dangane for obstruction of justice when he was Tacurong police chief.

Dangane has dismissed George Esperat’s suspicions as baseless. But as premature as it may be, many are likely to conclude that he or some other policeman had something to do with Marlene Esperat’s killing anyway. It’s not because there is, at this time, any proof of it beyond speculation. It’s because some policeman or another, in collusion with local politicians and/or their local superiors, has figured in several of the 66 killings of journalists in this country since 1986.

Another case in point, for example, is the killing of another Pagadian journalist, Olimpio Jalapit, a radio broadcaster. Jalapit was killed in 2000 in circumstances similar to Damalerio’s killing. Jalapit had frequently criticized one of the most powerful political families in Pagadian. Nothing has happened in the Jalapit case. His family fears that nothing will ever happen, because the local police refuse to do anything about it–a fact that raises suspicions about police involvement.

But it’s not just the killing of other journalists that makes the public presume police involvement. There’s also the common belief that if you scratched the surface of most crimes, you’re likely to find a policeman somehow involved. The result is that a policeman’s being mentioned in connection with a crime and in whatever context is usually reason enough for most Filipinos to say yes, he did it.

It’s an unfair assumption, and one which the police have had many occasions to lament. As unfair as it is, however, the cases of police involvement in criminal activities as well as killings are mounting, and the police have become one of the least credible government agencies in this country.

It doesn’t help the police any that the government’s own Commission on Human Rights has consistently named policemen as the leading violators of human rights in this country since CHR was established, despite all those courses in respecting human rights and due process policemen are made to attend.

Despite lectures on the presumption of innocence, the right of crime suspects to counsel, and the right against self-incrimination, the primary police means of “solving” crimes is to beat confessions out of suspects, specially the weak and powerless. One of the most open secrets in this country is also the police practice of “salvaging” or summary executions, which the police usually explain away as the result of shoot-outs with suspects or someone who tried to escape.

The common belief that the police are usually involved in the very crimes they’re supposed to solve, while they’re at the same time uncaring about the rights of suspects and due process, add up to a police the public thinks is more into law-breaking rather than law-enforcing. This perception is the basis of the widespread lack of faith in the justice system–the belief that no one can get justice in this country whether he’s a suspect in a crime or the aggrieved, unless one has the wealth and the connections.

It’s a belief that more than poverty has caused entire societies to come crashing down. The poorest can bear poverty so long as they’re assured of simple justice–the kind that allows the innocent to prove their innocence, and which punishes the guilty. Without that assurance, whether early or late the legions of the poor an unjust social system breeds will eventually turn against that system.

A damaged justice system–of which the police is a crucial part–is thus more damaging to social systems and governments as a war or a tsunami can be. But the irony is that few in the corridors of power, especially those responsible for it, are likely to notice the harm a damaged police organization can do to the system it’s supposed to protect until it’s too late.

(Manila Standard Today)

Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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