Cleaning up of Philippine police force may be a tall order

Policemen allegedly involved in various crimes marching inside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, on Feb 7, 2017.
Policemen allegedly involved in various crimes marching inside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, on Feb 7, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

MANILA - When President Rodrigo Duterte said the police force was "corrupt to the core", he wasn't saying anything that we, Filipinos, don't already know.

I honestly want to love them because most of them are, after all, risking their lives to keep us safe. But my experiences with some of the policemen I've run into have not been very pleasant.

It began, as most things do, with an impression.

When I was still a boy running around alleys and climbing walls in a suburb south of Manila, I wanted to be a member of the California Highway Patrol Group. That aspiration arose from the TV show CHiPs, which aired on NBC from 1977 to 1983. I imagined myself cruising the streets of California on a Kawasaki Z1-P, blindingly handsome in my aviator sunglasses. I would deal justice to road criminals and save the gorgeous damsel in distress without breaking a sweat.

But I soon realised this image of the dashing, incorruptible, self-sacrificing lawman was as far from the truth as California was from Manila.

 

We had a neighbour who was a police officer. This was in the 1970s. There was always something menacing about him. My mother would tell me to keep my distance from his cruiser whenever it was parked along our narrow road. His cruiser had the big, red light on the roof, and markings that identified his unit. He was from the Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command or Metrocom, the Gestapo of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Metrocom police knocked on doors, grabbed people, and threw them in jail, without showing warrants or answering questions, even from lawyers.

A special unit was populated with officers trained in the brutal art of extracting confessions by torture. One Marcos historian described it as a "close, tight-knit, psychotic club of martial law enforcers".

Anyway, I listened to my mother. I never saw our police-neighbour; just his cruiser.

Though I would prefer to keep my distance from any policeman, this is the Philippines and you can't really avoid them forever.

I've had two unpleasant run-ins with a police.

One was when my daughter was just a few months old. We were stuck in heavy traffic one late evening when the jeepney in front of us, without warning, backed into our car. I was naturally upset. I wanted to have a police report written so we could get this settled.

But the woman driver insisted that her husband, who owned the jeepney, would sort it out the next day. She assured me that he was a good and fair man, and he would sort this out to my satisfaction.

Her husband, it turned out, was a policeman. When I went to see him the morning after, he suggested it was my fault, that I rear-ended his jeepney, and he briefly considered billing me for the damage to his vehicle.

I was flabbergasted. The best recourse was just to walk away.

A few years later, I was making a U-turn along a centre island when a man on a motorcycle suddenly appeared to my left, and tried to cut me off. His front wheel touched my car door.

I rolled down my window and shouted at him: "Do you have a death wish?" He stepped off his motorcycle, removed his jacket, and, lo and behold, he was a policeman.

Now, I had a couple of beers already and so I was in a fix. He accused me of drunk-driving, took my licence, and sped away. I searched through three precincts before I found him.

More sober, I explained to him that I was just concerned for his safety, and that I was not too inebriated as to be a danger to anyone on the road.

He instead instructed me to fill out a logbook declaring that I had sideswiped an officer of the law. I did get my licence back, and that was that.

I would be a fool, of course, to assume that all policemen are bad because of some scalawags in their ranks. In fact, I've had help from some of them.

There was the information officer of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group who gave me access to a Singaporean arrested here for allegedly illegally recruiting maids.

There was also the operations chief of the Quezon City Police District who was kind enough, amid his busy schedule meeting quotas laid down by President Duterte, to grant an interview to two students of the National University of Singapore doing their thesis on the president's anti-crime drive.

Just a couple of months ago, I went with about two dozen police officers as they went about on one of their "operation tokhangs". This is when lawmen knock on the doors of men on "drugs lists"- "tokhang" means "to knock" in the Visayan dialect - to tell them to promise that they will mend their ways and report for civic duties and rehab.

It's not as exciting as running around metropolitan Manila throughout the evening looking for corpses, and then writing about how grim and brutal the days and nights have become back here, as many Pulitzer-chasing journalists from abroad like to do when they parachute here for some excitement in their careers.

But knocking on doors is what the police here usually do. They walk around streets and alleys just to remind everyone that they're watching.

The officers I went with were a rowdy bunch. They were constantly ribbing each other about their age, their wives and girlfriends, their low pay, and how their careers seemed to have been stuck in a rut.

Beneath the bantering and the humour is a sense that they could die any minute from a bullet in the head. That, I think, is where the menace, the grit, and the sense of brotherhood, in them emanate.

During my time with them, one junior officer got a dressing down from his supervisor for walking into a dark alley alone.

"Do you want to die? Is that what you want?" I overheard his superior shouting at him.

Police here are getting a really bad rap now.

Just recently, at least three anti-narcotics officers were charged for the kidnap-slaying of a South Korean, Mr Jee Ick Joo. It was a brutal and brazen crime. Mr Jee was strangled just steps away from the office of the police's highest-ranked officer. His body was cremated and his ashes flushed down a toilet.

Then the perpetrators had the gall to demand millions in ransom from Mr Lee's wife who, not knowing her husband was already dead, paid up.

This was just one death too many.

Since Mr Duterte took office, there had been over 7,000 killings, about half by police, as he relentlessly pursued his campaign promise to eradicate crime. Most of the victims had been poor, uneducated, and jobless. Their deaths generated little public sympathy, apart from howlings from human rights advocates.

But the Korean government and the media got involved in Mr Lee's case, and an officer who had been part of the team that snatched Mr Jee came out to tell what really happened.

So far, investigations have shown that a Korean syndicate, with police officers on its payroll, had Mr Jee, who owned a manpower agency here, killed for refusing to pay up. The ransom demand was just an afterthought.

Among those tagged in the killing was a colonel who led an anti-illegal drugs team and a lowly sergeant who made 8,000 pesos (S$227) a month, but had 20 million pesos (S$569,371) worth of assets.

The public outcry over Mr Jee's murder has led to a temporary halt in Mr Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign.

It has also highlighted a problem that has always hobbled the police: a mix of low pay and incentives to use their authority and firearms to make extra cash on the side, and a culture that tolerates this interplay. The result has been a police force that does its duties, but also looks the other way when some in their ranks go awry.

It is not uncommon now to hear about news of a robbery, extortion, drug dealing, prostitution, and many other crimes involving policemen or ex-lawmen.

When word of Mr Jee's murder broke out, it quickly became clear that this was not an isolated case. A Senate committee investigating the case was told that at least a dozen wealthy Filipino-Chinese businessmen had been kidnapped in the past year, all by policemen, under the guise of a drug raid.

Now, there is an "internal cleansing" going on to weed out the bad eggs in their ranks. But that may be a tall order.

The police force is essentially an old boy's club, with a dark sense of humour and noirish view of the world woven into its fibre. When all's said and done, they will always have each other's back.

rdancel@sph.com.sg