Accountability and violence
With police brutality once again making headlines, officials are once more contemplating regular neuropsychiatric tests for members of the force, with the idea of detecting loose cannons among officials and preventing harm.
This isn’t the first time that violence by officers has caused national alarm; for this I direct the reader to sites like hacktibista.ph, which compiles a list of such abuses, or concerned reports by the Human Rights Watch on the Philippines. This also isn’t the first time concerned statements have been made about the mental health of our policemen, and the need for services for evaluation or care. Bato dela Rosa, former PNP chief, voiced a similar proposal in December 2020 after the shooting of Sonya and Frank Gregorio in Tarlac. He advocated for regular neuropsychiatric tests, annually if possible, and anger management, saying that such lessons might have stayed the hand of shooter Senior Master Sergeant Jonel Nuezca.
According to a report by the Inquirer yesterday, physician and Police Lt. Col. Michelle Cruz, of the PNP health service’s department of psychiatry, commented on plans to do neuropsychiatric tests for police and agreed that these may be used as a monitoring tool. While she did not disclose the specific components of the exams, such tests normally assess traits like honesty, impulse control, attitude toward sexuality, general intelligence, and emotional intelligence. It’s thought that assessing these traits may help identify individuals who are more or less suited to handle the stressors of public service, and who are more or less likely to uphold strict ethical standards required in police work.
What Cruz did acknowledge was that there are no psychiatric tests that will reliably predict whether a person will commit an act of violence. Such tests may help gauge how a person reacts to stress or controls impulses, but in no way can they truly weed out men like Nuezca or Hensie Zinampan, who shot Lilybeth Valdez last week.
Last December, Dela Rosa mused that officers may enter the force “normal” but in the course of service might use drugs and thus experience an untoward change in personality. In this, Senator Dela Rosa and I may well agree: that recruits, though initially emotionally stable and morally upright, may pick up bad habits and change for the worse during their career. But more pernicious even than substance abuse are the pervasive attitudes of impunity and ruthlessness that trickle down within the force’s organizational culture. In 2016, President Duterte addressed policemen and soldiers at the outset of his war on drugs: “I will protect you. I will not allow one policeman or one military to go to jail.” This messaging has remained fairly consistent since.
In her 1998 book, “Shielded from Justice,” based on research in 14 US cities, Allyson Collins wrote that severe abuses persist because overwhelming barriers to accountability “make it all too likely that officers who commit human rights violations escape due punishment.” She makes a striking point—that high profile human rights abuse incidents are not “aberrations” committed by “rogue” officers: “Abuse persists in large part because the accountability systems are so defective.” Not because of a handful of loose cannons who could easily be identified by psychiatric evaluations.
Neuropsychiatric tests, however well intentioned, cannot reasonably be expected to truly change the course of police brutality in the Philippines without an upheaval in this culture. Consider the body-worn cameras recently deployed within the force. Philip Jamilla, public information officer of Karapatan Alliance Philippines, said correctly in a tweet on June 5 that these devices “are only as effective as the accountability mechanisms in place…” Whatever acts of misconduct are caught on camera, the ways they will be processed and sanctioned will continue to be just as flawed.
Say neuropsychiatric tests are implemented on the regular at all levels of the police force. Does one imagine that influential officials, high on power and scoring poorly on impulse control or anger management, will be relieved of their duties and weapons? Do we also imagine that such officials will be entered into effective counseling programs to help manage these high-risk traits? Even if they were, do we expect that such programs will counter and undo the messaging sounded by the nation’s Chief Executive since day one: “I will protect you”? It’s all well and good that such examinations and appropriate interventions are being considered, both for the well-being of those in the force and the safety of the citizenry. But as long as that promise hangs in the air and accountability systems are defective, abuse will persist, with or without neuropsychiatric tests, with or without body cameras.
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