Cash-strapped Philippines police cheer new crime-buster president

Members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) standing guard along a main street of metro Manila in the Philippines on May 12, 2016.
Members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) standing guard along a main street of metro Manila in the Philippines on May 12, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (REUTERS) - The police force in Manila is so underfunded that officers say they have to buy their own bullets and it is not uncommon for funeral service cars to give police a lift along to murder scenes because they have no vehicles of their own.

Enter Mr Rodrigo Duterte, who won this week's presidential election in the Philippines on a single-issue campaign of crushing crime, corruption and drug abuse.

He has pledged to raise policing standards to the level of Davao, the once-lawless city in southern Mindanao, where he has been mayor for 22 years and the only one in the country that runs its own 911 emergency call service.

Mr Duterte's message, unpolished and peppered with profanities, tapped into popular alarm over a drug-fuelled jump in crime. In 2012, the United Nations said the Philippines had the highest rate of methamphetamine, or "shabu", use in East Asia. The US State Department said 2.1 per cent of Flipinos aged 16 to 64 were using shabu, the main drug threat in the Philippines along with marijuana.

Reported crimes in the Philippines more than doubled from 319,441 cases in 2010, when President Benigno Aquino took office, to 675,816 last year, according to national police data. Roughly half of those were serious crimes, and rape cases jumped 120 per cent over this period.

Police officials say the figures overstate the problem because reporting of crimes has risen with the introduction of closed-circuit TV cameras in many urban areas and SMS messaging for filing complaints.

Still, Mr Duterte says he intends to be a "dictator" against forces of evil. He told Reuters on the campaign trail that five criminals should be killed a week and promised if he became president that the fish in Manila Bay would grow fat on the bodies of all the "pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings" dumped there.

Rights group say death squads have operated with impunity in Davao, killing some 1,500 people since 1998.

"Duterte Harry", as he is known, denies ordering extrajudicial killings, but he doesn't condemn them.

STRETCHED POLICE FORCE

If the police station Reuters visited this week in the capital, Manila, is any measure, then Mr Duterte has much to fix. Captain Rommel Anicete, chief of the Manila police district's homicide division, told Reuters he and his men have been buying their own bullets since the 1990s.They split the cost of getting two air-conditioners serviced and while they do share a couple of ageing computers, they are always short of paper for their printer and have no photocopier.

There aren't enough police cars to go around and Mr Anicete said one colleague uses a motorbike to do his policing duties, paying for fuel and repairs out of his own pocket.

The Philippines had one police officer for every 651 people in 2012, according to official data. Its force is far more stretched across an archipelago than neighbouring Thailand with a 1:302 ratio and Malaysia with 1:267 in the same year.

The government budgeted 88.1 billion pesos (S$2.6 billion) for the police this year, up around 13 per cent from 2015.

A senior police official said it was still too little for the force of about 160,000 officers. "We lack patrol cars and secure radios," said the official, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media."We want to issue a gun for every police officer but those recruited after 2012 will have to wait a bit."

Like other police officers questioned for this story, he declined to say who he had voted for, but added: "Of course we like what we have heard so far from him."

"CRIMINALS WILL BE AFRAID"

Mr Duterte has promised to double police pay, which for some officers is as low as 18,000 pesos (S$536) a month. Asked how the government will fund this, Duterte spokesman Peter Lavina said: "We will find a way."

He added that a new detachment to fight drug crime would be set up, and corrupt officers would be fired from the force.

Mr Duterte also wants to set up command centres for security cameras in cities around the country that are modelled on a state-of-the-art crime reporting hub in Davao City.

Roderick Tan, a sergeant in the Manila Police District's theft and robbery division, said he welcomed Mr Duterte's assurances that he will shield the police from legal suits and the harassment of criminals or suspects complaining of injuries.

The incoming president has also made it clear that he is no friend of human rights groups and corruption watchdogs that investigate the police's battles against criminal gangs. "That should boost police morale," said Mr Anicete. "I think criminals will be afraid, especially those involved in drugs."