The latest scandal in the Philippine National Police (PNP) – of cops killing a “tokhang for ransom” victim right in the premises of the police headquarters in Camp Crame – is the latest in an endless litany of horror stories about police incompetence, corruption, human rights abuse and involvement in criminal activities.

This is not a simple problem of misfits and scalawags infiltrating the police force. Apparently no amount of screening, reorganization, revamp, reshuffling, or strike one policies have weeded out the undesirables. They continue sprouting all over the place.

It’s not a lack of training, orientation or institutional checks on corruption and abuse either. We have reams of laws, guidelines, circulars, memos, operations and training manuals that are supposed to ensure professionalism and integrity in the police force. There are redundant checks and balances, oversight mechanisms, disciplinary procedures and safeguard mechanism that should be enough to prevent corruption, abuse and incompetence in the PNP. There’s the National Police Commission (Napolcom), the Internal Affairs Service (IAS) and the People’s Law Enforcement Board (PLEB), among other institutional checks. Add to that scores of human rights education seminars, moral recovery campaigns, even waist-trimming programs. But still.

Some say the problem is low salaries or lack of benefits. But on the contrary, our police and military have among the best salaries and most comprehensive benefits in the government service; better than our teachers, health workers, and rank and file office workers. It definitely wouldn’t explain why the corruption goes all the way to the PNP’s top echelons, who earn more than enough to keep a comfortable life.

The problems are clearly deep-seated, historical, structural, and systematic.

It involves cultural and orientational flaws in all levels of the force. Idealistic, right-minded young recruits into the service are eaten up and mangled by this monster of an institution and converted into the anti-theses of what professional law enforcers should be. And it seems to have gotten worse.

The PNP’s sordid history and tradition

Today’s PNP has a long history and tradition as an instrument of oppression against our very own people. Its roots can be traced to the Philippine Constabulary created by the US government in 1901. The PC was formed primarily to suppress the country’s revolutionary movement that defeated Spain and turned to resist American colonial rule.

Much like the Spanish Guardia Civil, the PC was used by the American colonialists and their favored oligarchs (most of whom were also friendly to Spain) to impose their own brand of corrupt and oppressive rule over the local population.

After the Japanese Occupation in 1946, the PC turned its attention to the Hukbalahap guerillas who fought against the Japanese but opposed the return to US colonial rule. Once again, the PC was used to destroy our people’s capacity to fight the status quo.

To complement the PC, municipalities and cities were provided their own local police forces under the control of the mayors and governors through the Integrated National Police (INP). The localized INP ended up as private armies and adjuncts of the political dynasties and warlords that lorded over most of the country’s towns and provinces.

In 1975, the biggest warlord of them all, Ferdinand Marcos, merged the PC and the INP into one branch under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The PC-INP played a key role in the dictatorship’s brutal counter-insurgency operations. It also made the police even more powerful and notorious in serving as thugs of the Marcos dictatorship and its favored dynasties and warlords. In tandem with other branches of the AFP, the PC-INP became a pillar of open fascist rule. It was used to crack down not only on criminals but on ordinary citizens who dared to oppose Marcos.

Under martial law, the military and police establishment reached the pinnacle of its power. It lorded over everyone and was answerable to no one. PC-INP officials eventually took over the vacuum left by the criminal syndicates supposedly dismantled by the Marcos regime. Thus did the culture of impunity spread like a virus infecting the highest to the lowest ranking member of the PC-INP.

Unfortunately, the crucial participation of the AFP in the ouster of Marcos in 1986 ensured its insulation from public accountablity in the post-dictatorship years. Succeeding regimes allowed the AFP, including the PC-INP, to remain intact and essentially pardoned for its numerous crimes against the people. Hardly any of its officials and personnel were charged, much less punished, for their involvement in 14 years of fascist atrocities.

The so-called abolition of the PC-INP in 1991 and its transformation to a civilian PNP did little to change its deeply ingrained traditions and practices, including its involvement in criminal activity and human rights abuses.

To this day, the PNP continues to play a key role in internal security operations that target patriotic and progressive groups that form the backbone of our civil liberties and human rights movements. It is also the main player in Oplan Tokhang and Oplan Double Barrel that have resulted in the killing of more than 6,000 suspected drug users and dealers.

With President Rodrigo Duterte covering their backs, today’s cops have become greatly emboldened in playing their traditional role as the people’s oppressors.

Instrument of oppression

As coercive apparatuses of a particular political and socio-economic system, police and military forces are the only agencies legally permitted to use violence and force in preventing citizens from violating that system’s laws and regulations.

With that power comes great responsibility as well as immense potential for abuse. The challenge then is for policemen and soldiers to develop the extraordinary fortitude and integrity to remain upright.

This challenge is made extremely difficult in a political system dominated by foreign and elite interests, and where corruption and patronage is the name of the game. The police, as the servants and protectors of that flawed system, will necessarily end up just as rotten as the corrupt and abusive politicians and operators that run it.

After more than a century of serving colonial masters, local dynasties and oligarchs, and after experiencing absolute power under martial law, today’s Philippine National Police (PNP) has become hopelessly mercenary and criminal. It has developed its own internal mechanisms to make use of the oppressive and corrupt systems of governance to keep its own masters in power and enrich its own set of elites – officers coming almost entirely from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).

Far from its motto “To serve and protect,” the PNP has become a tool to oppress our own people and repress their social and democratic movements. From gunrunning, drug trafficking, kidnap for ransom, prostitution rings, protection rackets to illegal gambling operations, it’s like SM – they’ve got it all.

Abolition as an option

Of late, there have been efforts to strengthen the PNP’s internal checks and balances, with Senator Panfilo Lacson suggesting that PNP Director General Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa handpick 100 of his most trusted men to cleanse the ranks. It’s not that these things have not been tried in the past. It’s just that they eventually fail. (READ: Dela Rosa orders PNP: Stop war on drugs)

The most radical suggestion I’ve heard to reform the PNP is to fire all officers from senior superintendent up to director general. But that would still fail to address the deep-seated, systemic problems of the police force and will only give rise to a new breed of corrupt officials.

Sometimes, the only way to fix a problem is to get rid of it.

Abolishing the PNP will mean firing everyone, from General Bato to the lowliest PO1 de la Cruz. This is the ultimate strategy to dismantle the deeply entrenched mafia and corrupt power structures in the PNP.

This will also mean creating a new police force from the ground up, with new policies, structures and mechanisms to prevent the new police from getting to where it is now.

This new police agency will have to steer clear of the PNP’s long history and tradition as a mercenary military and para-military institution. It should be truly civilian in character, community-centered in its function, professional and fully transparent and accountable to the public in its operations.

The following conditions would probably be crucial in creating such an agency:

  • That no graduate of the Philippine Military Academy should be allowed to hold a position. This effectively breaks the PMA mafia that has lorded it over the PNP for decades. Seniority and rank should not be a factor in the selection of appointments to the new police force. Members of the defunct PNP should be required to undergo a stringent performance review, reorientation and retraining before being accepted to the new agency.
  • That PNP elements involved in criminal activities and human rights violations should be seriously prosecuted, punished and prohibited from joining the new agency.
  • That full power and accountability over the police should be given to the local government units, with the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) exercising effective oversight. The selection of provincial police directors should be transparent and undergo a process of public scrutiny and selection.
  • The police force should be somehow organically meshed with the local baranggay peace and order machineries to ensure quick and seamless police response at the most basic levels. The top-heavy structure of the police force be turned on its head, with emphasis on community-based and community-centered operations;
  • Respect for human rights should be at the core of police education and training. This will serve as the internal check on police brutality, abuse and impunity.
  • The police internal affairs mechanism should be reoriented as a watchdog type agency in coordination with the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), and human rights and anti-crime groups. Said office should be headed by credible human rights advocates.
  • The Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) should be liberated from its militarist mindset and become more of a civilian institution producing professional law enforcement officers. Adequate training, facilities and resources be put in place to upgrade and professionalize the police force in all levels.
  • That the salaries and benefits of police officers be increased to attract better personnel, improve morale and reduce corrupt practices.

As with most sweeping reorganizations, the challenge is how to accomplish this in the swiftest but least disruptive manner. This is a matter probably best left to organizational experts.

Abolition in the context of social reforms

Of course, whatever benefits can be had from the abolition of the PNP and the establishment of a new police force can be easily undermined or squandered by the very same corrupt politicians, power brokers and criminal protectors that have benefitted from the old system.

Thus, the PNP’s abolition should be done in the context of more comprehensive reforms to democratize the country’s political structure and culture as well as institutionalize mechanisms for transparency and accountability. This would include electoral reforms, a strong law protecting whistleblowers, a freedom of information act covering all branches of government, the abolition or reduction of political dynasties, and a radical cleansing of the judicial system, among others. Without these, a newly formed police force will surely succumb to the old ways.

There are two opportunities in the horizon for such sweeping changes – the proposed shift to a federal system of government proposed by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte, and the ongoing negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) for a comprehensive agreement on political and constitutional reforms. Taken jointly or separately, these opportunities for political reform can be the avenue for the police force’s much needed overhaul.

It goes without saying that the public, particularly the progressive social movements, will play a crucial in this project as time and time again, we have seen how the traditional wielders of power have hijacked previous efforts to reform the system.#

(This article was published as a two-part series in rappler.com on January 24 and 30, 2017.)

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