Alan Purisima

Reacting to demands that he fire Philippine National Police Chief Alan Purisima for, among other reasons, the involvement of policemen in robberies, extortion, kidnapping, even murder and other crimes, President Benigno Aquino III declared that “there have always been ‘scalawags’ in the police.” That statement implied that there’s nothing that can be done about it, in perhaps the same way that we can’t do anything about the sun’s rising in the East and setting in the West.

Apparently firing Purisima and reforming the police are out of the question as far as Mr. Aquino is concerned because that’s just the way things are—in addition to the fact that Purisima is virtually part of Mr. Aquino’s barkada, having been appointed to the exalted post of PNP chief because Mr. Aquino has warm thoughts about his alleged involvement in the defense of the Cory Aquino government when it was under siege from coup plotters in the late 1980s.

As if Aquino’s statements were not enough, the Secretary of the Interior, who supposedly has administrative control over the police, claimed that, after all, “only” one percent of the 148,000-strong PNP have been involved in crimes and other wrongdoing, declaring that “99 percent,” or the “overwhelming majority” of policemen are doing their jobs well.

Manuel Roxas II did not reveal from where he pulled those statistics, but never mind. Assuming that Roxas’ figures are real and not the products of his fertile imagination, if one percent of the entire bureaucracy were corrupt, that would indeed be of relatively little moment. But we’re talking about the police—who’re part of the coercive machinery of the State, and who have a monopoly over the legal use of firearms to insure citizen obedience. This single fact alone— the police monopoly over the legal use of force—makes them more equal than the rest of the bureaucracy, that monopoly enabling them to arrest, detain and even kill whomever they claim is engaged in criminality.

Meanwhile, Aquino himself expressed his confidence in Purisima during a subsequent Malacanang event, claiming that the latter has put reforms in place in the PNP, and that in the case of the six policemen implicated in an abduction/extortion incident at EDSA, it was the police themselves who arrested their fellow policemen.

Aquino also claimed that the image of the police has changed for the better,” due, he said, to the “transformation” that has taken place in the ranks not only in terms of better equipment and police welfare, but also because of the “culture” that has begun to dominate in the system.

Exactly what these reforms are Aquino didn’t say, and probably can’t say, unless he’s referring to his endowing the police with various benefits and new firearms, which, if anything could only contribute to the sense of entitlement among the police as members of an institution whose legal monopoly over armed violence puts it above all other government instrumentalities.

Apparently Aquino doesn’t go out much either—at least not enough to hear what Filipinos are saying about the police, whom they condemn for their corruption, their abuse of power, and their plain lawlessness. And who else, anyway, are supposed to arrest erring policemen except policemen? That’s their job, and doing what they’re supposed to do doesn’t make them worthy of praise.

Aquino, however, tried to deflect the issue of police corruption, incompetence and lawlessness by excoriating the media, which apparently he blames, together with the past administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for much of what’s wrong in this country. It was disheartening, he said, that the media focus on crimes through front page headlines, while ignoring, or putting in the inside pages, reports on crimes that have been solved. Mr. Aquino did not mention that TV news programs do report and even emphasize the solutions to high profile crimes, among them the arrest of the suspects in the killing of a race car driver, and the arrest as well as the developments in the trial, after two years, of former General Jovito Palparan who’s accused of abducting and causing the disappearance of UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño.

But what else can one expect from someone who won’t—and probably can’t—listen to reason and dissenting views, who insists that HIS and his officials’ version of events is the only legitimate one? It‘s unlikely that Mr. Aquino will even reconsider his support for Purisima, despite recent events.

Appearing in a Senate hearing on his assets and on the construction of his multi-million residence inside the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame a few weeks after Aquino, as usual, went out of his way to defend his subalterns, Purisima alleged that the construction of the residence—the so-called “White House”—was made possible through various donations. He also blithely claimed that he had received some 60 percent in discounts in acquiring his luxury Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV).

Several questions remain unanswered even after the Senate hearing, among them how Purisima managed to purchase property worth millions more than what he said was their value in his Statement of Assets and Liabilities and Net World (SALN). Almost unanimously have the senators expressed their skepticism over Purisima’s testimony. But what’s outstanding is that Purisima sees nothing wrong in accepting these donations, and is apparently entirely clueless about the fact that accepting gifts, donations and discounts from various private sources is unethical, since it makes the recipient—Purisima in this instance—beholden or indebted to them.

If one of Purisima’s donors is accused of a crime, for example, would the PNP conduct a fair and thorough investigation? This is known as a conflict of interest: a situation in which the personal and institutional interests of the PNP would conflict with its responsibility of investigating alleged crimes, and of putting together the evidence that could lead to prosecution.

It may interest Mr. Aquino to know that most of the journalists he habitually criticizes for alleged inaccuracy, unfairness and focus on the bad news know that accepting gifts, discounts and donations is unethical because it can have an impact on how they report events involving the gift-givers and donors. Purisima argued that this is the way it’s always been in the police, thereby marking one of the rare times in which the entire country has heard from the horse’s mouth itself one of the leading reasons for the moral and unethical bankruptcy of the institution he heads.

This isn’t to suggest that all journalists refuse gifts, bribes, donations or discounts, but that its being unethical is at least known and understood. In contrast, there seems to be no such awareness in the PNP, or even on the part of Purisima.

As is the habit of the bureaucrats in government, Purisima has declared that he will not resign his post. And yet the lack of confidence in Purisima and even in the entire police organization he heads is widespread. Confidence is the key element in officials’ remaining in office, and loss of confidence should be enough for anyone with a sense of decency to resign his post. Absent that quality on the part of Purisima, Mr. Aquino should heed what his claimed “bosses”—the people—are saying. Otherwise he will be demonstrating that it’s not the Filipino people who’re his bosses, it’s people like Purisima.

First published in BusinessWorld.

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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