The idea that public servants — officials, bureaucrats, soldiers, and police — exist to serve the people, and not the other way around, has lately come under assault. After a particularly heinous crime involving a police officer, who shot dead an unarmed mother and her son after a neighborly dispute and in full view of bystanders, including the cop’s pre-teen daughter, the defense tack of the ruling order and its minions has been to insist, absurdly and outrageously, on the need to render “respect” to persons in authority — the implication being that because the victims somehow violated this edict by talking back at the cop, they had it coming to them.
Police Staff Sergeant Jonel Nuezca remains in police custody after the shooting of Sonya Gregorio, 52, and her son, Frank, 25. This is not an “isolated case” as police officials and the administration assert. Instead, it is but part of a pattern of police impunity that is exemplified by the thousands of killings and rub-outs that have marked the course of the “war on drugs” over the last four years.
In what looks like an orchestrated attempt at revisionism, administration officials, allies, and supporters are at pains to explain away Nuezca’s behavior and distance the Philippine National Police from any institutional responsibility. These excuses range from the cop’s possible “insanity” to his being under the influence of drugs. The Gregorio mother-and-son, on the other hand, were allegedly “asking for it” by showing a lack of respect for Nuezca, for answering back and taunting his daughter, and for refusing the policeman’s demand that Frank come with him to the police station. But, given the frequency of killings of suspects under police custody, one would understand the Gregorios’ distrust and terrified reluctance to be carted off; Nuezca was not even on duty, and was in civilian clothes, at the time of the incident.
It was President Duterte who first articulated the belief that Nuezca was mentally unbalanced (“may topak”). Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, ever the President’s acolyte, embroidered the tale with the allegation that the rogue cop was possibly a drug user (“adik”). Nuezca’s superior, PNP chief Debold Sinas likewise attempted to diminish institutional culpability in Nuezca’s actions by boiling down the horrific double murder to one of “anger management,” despite Nuezca having racked up in his last 10 years in the service six charges for grave misconduct, serious neglect of duty, and refusal to undergo a drug test, leading to an administrative case and suspension. Two homicide cases filed against him were dismissed due to “lack of substantial evidence.”
Shortly after news of Nuezca’s killings, Bato, Catanduanes Police Captain Ariel Buraga crowed on social media that blame should fall on Sonya Gregorio for taunting Nuezca’s daughter who, in the midst of the dispute, shouted that the victims should respect her father because he is a policeman.
“Lesson learn (sic),” Buraga wrote, adding in Filipino that even if one is already white-haired, one should respect the police, inferring that it was this lack of respect that triggered Nuezca.
Buraga’s words found an echo in Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who called on the Filipino people not to rush to judgment against the entire police force, but should give them love and care instead so they could do their duties more fervently (“… Tulungan po natin sila upang maramdaman nila ang pagmamahal at pagkalinga ng mamamayan … Ipakita natin ang ating tiwala nang sa ganun ay suklian nila ito nang mas tapat na paglilingkod sa ating bayan”). As if begrudging the public its fury at Nuezca’s heinous act and the enabling environment around him, Pacquiao chose the occasion to lecture that law enforcers deserved trust from the public.
Commission on Elections spokesperson James Jimenez was a solitary voice of sanity when he admonished his fellow public officials that “a civil servant should not demand respect as a precondition for giving respect. Public servants are not regular citizens who have the luxury of losing our temper; we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Nuezca’s behavior, and the justifications offered by adherents, is frightening because “it betrays a sense of entitlement that has taken root among some members of the Philippine National Police,” warned journalist Ed Lingao in a Facebook post. While “everyone deserves a measure of respect, no one is entitled to even imply that failure to show respect could result in the application of force.”
Force, deadly force, was indeed what Nuezca applied to the Gregorios. And if we go by the quick circling of the wagons and the network of support thrown around the killer cop, force can be excused, finessed, and justified to carry out the insidious notion swimming in many government officials’ heads that entitlement and deference are what people in authority like them deserve.
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