Who will police the police?
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?)
This question, posed many years ago by the Roman poet Juvenal, has remained relevant throughout the world, its significance undiminished across changing modes of government from the absolute rule by the Caesars to our modern but fragile democracies.
In the Philippines, the guardia civil became the face of state power during Spanish colonial times, and were known for abusive behavior, as memorialized in the life and works of Jose Rizal. Years later, the kempeitai or the Japanese secret police would be equally abusive, if not more so, and there are still Filipinos who have first-hand experiences of their atrocities, which included rape and other forms of sexual violence.
How different has it been when Filipinos were put in charge of policing fellow Filipinos? The record, alas, has been equally dismal.
During martial law, the Philippine Constabulary had unchecked powers, and it used them in barbarous ways, as evidenced by the unspeakable torture inflicted on Dr. Johnny Escandor, Liliosa Hilao, and countless others. Even today, living survivors like Neri Colmenares can testify to the horrors that earned for the “PC” its rightful notoriety.
Beyond Marcos, this pattern has continued, with police figuring among suspected perpetrators of extrajudicial killings during the Arroyo and Aquino administrations. The Department of Justice itself, for instance, detailed in a 2013 report how police officers brutalized Zamboanga siege suspects in ways reminiscent of martial law.
During President Duterte’s term, police abuses have continued, if not intensified, enabled by the President’s promise of protection and impunity. We saw them in the drug war with the killings of Kian delos Santos, Carl Arnaiz, and many others; the secret jail cell in Tondo; the inexcusable death of Jee Ick-joo right inside Camp Crame; as well as testimonial accounts of palit-ulo and palit-puri.
We see them still today, amid the pandemic, with Jonel Nuezca exemplifying a murderous impulse that can only come from institutionalized arrogance—and with quarantine violator Debold Sinas, now Philippine National Police chief, serving as living proof that they can get away with it.
Just as many have warned, the anti-terrorism law seems to have emboldened the police even more, as the so-called “rescue” of lumad students and teachers inside the University of San Carlos show. And so as activists like Chad Booc remain unjustifiably behind bars, arrested without warrant, we ask: Who will police the police themselves?
Social scientists have charted the ways in which absolute power corrupts absolutely, and how “occupational culture” can perpetuate misguided notions of masculinity, tribalism, and entitlement. Sexual exploitation and abuse is one manifestation of this resultant culture of violence and impunity: Faced with the accusation of raping a 15-year-old minor in exchange for her parents’ freedom in 2018, PO1 Eduardo Valencia said that it “was nothing new among operatives when we arrest drug pushers.” Such a staggering statement, as well as reports of PNP cadets being forced to perform oral sex as punishment, speaks of how sexual violence is institutionalized.
To be fair, there have been efforts from within the police to discipline their own ranks. But more often than not, what we hear are defensive dismissals—“it’s just an isolated case!”—and we have yet to see any systematic pushback against what the police call “scalawags.” Instead of being meaningfully punished, they are merely reassigned, or as in the case of Sinas, even promoted.
Amid all of the above, the Commission on Human Rights has done an outstanding job in exposing police abuses, resisting enormous pressure including threats of defunding and tirades from the President. Brave lawmakers have also tried to hold wayward law enforcers to account, and so have judges, including Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. who found three cops guilty of murdering Kian delos Santos. Without the cooperation of the administration, however, they can only do so much, and ironically, Sen. Leila de Lima—a vocal critic of police abuses in and beyond the drug war—is still in police custody.
Ultimately, policing the police is up to the people—by demanding accountability, challenging abuse-prone laws, and, most importantly, electing government officials who will make sure there will be neither impunity for abusive behavior nor inaction toward badly-needed police reforms.
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