The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
— Sir Robert Peel, Second Baronet
WITH the presidential elections concluded mid-2016, the new administration, led by the charismatic former mayor of Davao City Rodrigo Roa Duterte, inherited a fragmented and divided government in which corruption pervaded almost in all state institutions and agencies.
And under the leadership of Duterte’s predecessor, the old regime’s police functioned similar to an organized crime gang, extorting resources from the population, trafficking drugs and arms, and, somewhat sporadically, being used to defend the interests of the incumbent elites.
Reform began, however, in July 2016 as part of a more general effort by the Duterte administration to assert the state’s monopoly of security functions from the control of the corrupted police leadership, official and unofficial regional political figures, including organized crime groups and as part of its drive to combat corruption in public life. An overhaul of the police force was initiated led by then Philippine National Police (PNP) chief General Ronald ‘Bato’ Dela Rosa, a staunch Duterte ally and one of those belonging to the so-called ‘Davao Clique’.
It is difficult to estimate exact numbers because the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) does not really keep accurate records. Overall, the overhauled PNP was upsized to more recruits and in addition, major structural changes were implemented, the most important of which were the elimination of several redundant and/or duplicating functions (e.g. the tourist police) and the reshuffling of police officials assigned in the different branches of the police organization.
Reform has been relatively successful in the PNP because, on Duterte’s assumption as president and commander-in-chief of the military and uniformed personnel, the new government used its dominance of the state to fire a huge number of officers, purge the old leadership and instigate a crackdown on police corruption and links with organized crime. This took place in the background of a strong public demand for reform and a state-building process which dramatically reduced public sector corruption and altered state-society relations. Added to this was Duterte’s vaunted anti-drug campaign which became literally a war of aggression against substance abuse and its proliferation as an illegal source of income.
Police reform is to be understood in the global context of the state building project undertaken by the new government, which came to power in 2016. The project aimed at increasing the capacity of the state and has been conducted by elites with a genuine interest in reducing low level corruption. Although the politicization of the police and human rights abuses within the criminal justice system remain serious problems, the Duterte administration has re-established the state’s political and economic control over the police by increasing police pay, removing most of the old regime’s personnel, and eliminating the influence of organized crime groups.
A number of institutional measures were also introduced to address patrimonialism and systematic corruption, at low levels, such as competitive recruitment and centralized wage payments. By contrast, although state capacity has enhanced the centre’s mechanisms of control over the police in recent years, this has not been used to tackle corruption or patrimonialism effectively at any level. This is because state and law enforcement remain dominated by officials who developed their careers in the past under previous administrations, when state actors become increasingly corrupt and/or involved in organized crime.
In contemporary times, local government units had little capacity to influence police units and individual officers are often dependent on and responsible to, corrupt elements within the police hierarchy, organized crime groups and/or local political figures.
Although a number of reforms were introduced in the PNP, they failed to regulate police action and curtail police abuse or impunity. According to one police expert, there was little serious attempt to reform the police until early 2017, when a more substantial police reform program was announced by Dela Rosa. The aim of these reforms has been to upgrade the size of the police by around 20 percent, increase salaries by 30 percent, improve the quality of equipment, and introduce new regulations governing police behavior.
But police reform should only be considered a relative success because whereas the police now perform their duties more equitably, deliver services with better effectiveness and efficiency and are responsive to some of the wishes of the communities they police, both they, and other criminal justice actors, fail to do so in a number of areas.
The crackdown against crime and corruption has resulted in a criminal justice system in which acquittals are almost impossible, the prisons are overcrowded and brutal, and the PNP as the most powerful and hierarchical organ enforcing the law lacks transparency, with one prominent radio commentator arguing that the PNP has gone a long way toward looking like a benign police force.
Mirroring the government’s wider prioritization of state building over democratization, the police system has become tightly centralized and there is a lack of accountability to bodies or persons outside of the government. The police are also perceived to be instruments of political control. During protests and the closure of an independent television station, the police were widely criticized for their heavy-handedness and excessive violence. Unfortunately, although these limitations are vitally important and worthy of attention, there is not enough space to discuss them in detail.
The success of police reform is dependent upon state building because police tend to replicate the order set out by the state; they receive their authority from it, the state can recruit and promote those who mirror its normative stance and reject those who do not, it has substantial economic leverage over the police and, finally, it also has an important role in deciding police strategy and, often, operational and tactical choices.
Police may deviate from the framework set out by the political authority but they tend to take their cues from it. As one police expert states, “the reason is that police are content to be used; they rarely have an ideological stake in the political regime of their country . . . Typically, they are adjuncts to groups that control resources more directly.”
Now the success of the PNP reform stems from the nature of the state building project launched by the Duterte administration, which increased the state’s capacity and was conducted with an anti-corruption ethos. By consolidating power, the new government was able to purge the police of corrupted elements and remove the external corrupting influence of organized crime groups and bureaucratic patrons. The efficiency of the state building project and its anti-corruption ethos were possible primarily due to combination of willing and capable elites, supported by a Western-looking, relatively homogeneous population.
To date, state capacity has improved, but the continuation of a relatively high level of police activity in informal economic activity, links with organized crime groups and neo-patronage are significant challenges to meaningful reform. Recent pay increases and the centralization of wages may lessen the negative impact of these over time but it is difficult to see how structural corruption can be curtailed without institutional reform and a replacement of elites at the echelons of the policing system.
The PNP is still afflicted by a number of serious problems however, one of the most important of which is the level of politicization around a small group of personalities. (AI/MTVN)