Quick sanctions, for a change
Can the Philippine National Police (PNP) be counted on to discipline its ranks and mete out penalties against erring members, especially those high up in the totem pole? The mañanita held for Metro Manila police chief Debold Sinas amid the quarantine, and the contortions the police brass went through to excuse that gross violation, were for many the epitome of a police force that saw itself above the law.
The scandal further tarnished police credibility and robbed the PNP of any moral authority, such that when activists and ordinary citizens massed up on June 12 and called their assembly a mañanita, the police could only bleat out deflated reminders, at risk of being laughed at for their double standards.
Two recent events show that the police, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, may be learning from such debacles, and that, if they want to, they can impose prompt sanctions on law enforcers who flout the law and display impunity.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año lost no time cracking the whip on 28 personnel from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) who descended on Boracay on June 12 and held a “despedida’’ or farewell party. That mass gathering set off a trail of possible coronavirus infections and ruined the island’s scheduled reopening just a few days after the incident. In total disregard of health protocols and quarantine rules, the group even claimed to be part of a meeting of Cabinet officials preparing for the island’s reopening. One of the partygoers tested positive for COVID-19, putting at risk around 200 BFP personnel, hotel employees, and boatmen.
To Año’s credit, he went further than mere public chiding and relieved the concerned BFP personnel, including the group’s chief, Senior Supt. Roderick Aguto. He would not tolerate such wrongdoings or accept excuses, declared Año, because the BFP men’s actions put people at risk. “Moreover, as law enforcers, we must set a good example to our people, and the breach of quarantine protocols sets a very bad example.”
Hear, hear. That crucial message should come across to help salvage the reputation of law enforcers seen these days as mostly aggravating the hardships brought about by the COVID-19 crisis. Incidents like the killing of a man in a Quezon City checkpoint, the crackdown on and harsh treatment of alleged quarantine violators, and not least, the sight of high-ranking police officers violating quarantine rules themselves, have severely dented the PNP’s public standing and affected the morale of good men and women in the service.
PNP chief Gen. Archie Gamboa, meanwhile, got his turn to display stern leadership when he sacked Col. Marion Balonglong, the police chief of Puerto Princesa City, for yet another shocking case of police abuse.
Balonglong was the subject of complaints of illegal arrest and maltreatment lodged by eight forest guards of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and two barangay tanod in the city. The forest rangers were investigating extensive mangrove-cutting at a sitio in Barangay Matahimik when they were intercepted by policemen led by Balonglong and allegedly subjected to a full body search, told to lie down on the ground, and then taken to a vacant lot said to be owned by Balonglong for interrogation. There, the police chief reportedly forced one of the forest rangers, Roldan Alvarez, to kneel, and while pointing a gun at him, repeatedly kicked and punched Alvarez.
A furious Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu took up the cudgels for the DENR personnel. “It is totally unacceptable that these environmental enforcers who continue to perform their duties despite the COVID-19 pandemic have to suffer violence at the hands of the police, who should be assisting them in their operations,” Cimatu said in a statement, demanding a “swift resolution’’ to the matter.
The PNP chief responded accordingly, ordering not only Balonglong’s relief but also a formal investigation into his actions.
Of course, it may well be that such swift action was prompted by a Cabinet official’s strong rebuke. But any good step is progress that must be encouraged, given the vital need for the police to do more to rid its ranks of rogues if it is to regain public trust.
Now, about another issue hounding the PNP — its penchant for red-tagging, particularly in light of a dreaded anti-terrorism bill: “It has never been a government position,’’ Año asserted during a recent forum. “We always respect our citizens’ right or freedom of expression.” He vowed that the government would “not tolerate or allow’’ the police to brand activists and dissenting voices as terrorists and subversives.
Good. For starters, the Butuan police came out with infographics making precisely such dangerous claims, equating calls by various quarters for better government measures against COVID-19 to terrorism. Will the public see the same quick censure from Año and Gamboa in this regard?
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