Making errant police accountable
It’s welcome news in a parched landscape of rising prices and political killings, and one that finally gave closure to some of the families of drug war victims.
Branch 287 of the Navotas Regional Trial Court on Monday sentenced dismissed cop Jefrey Sumbo Perez to reclusion perpetua, or up to 40 years’ imprisonment without eligibility for parole, for the 2017 killing of teenagers Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman. The two went missing on Aug. 17, 2017, with Arnaiz’s body found with several gunshot wounds in a Caloocan funeral parlor on Aug. 28. De Guzman’s body was found a month later in a creek in Gapan, Nueva Ecija, with 28 stab wounds.
Earlier, in November 2022, a Caloocan court found Perez guilty of two separate counts of torturing Arnaiz and De Guzman, and of planting drugs and a gun on Arnaiz, saying he had shot it out with the police. An eyewitness disputed the police’s claim, while a postmortem showed that Arnaiz and De Guzman bore signs of being tortured. Perez’s co-accused, PO1 Ricky Arquilita, had died in the course of the trial.
In Sultan Kudarat, eight policemen, including the Lambayong municipal police chief, are facing murder and other criminal charges for their alleged involvement in the death of three teenagers in December last year. The police claimed that the three had ignored their checkpoint and fired at them when they gave chase. But a postmortem, autopsy, and ballistics report showed that the three were shot at close range, with one of them in a kneeling position.
Rights groups have described Perez’s conviction as an “encouraging” and “welcome development amidst impunity,” with Human Rights Watch saying that it “affirms the hope that, no matter how long it takes, justice can still happen [and] accountability is still possible.”
The Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court (ICC), however, believes the conviction is “only a drop in the bucket, considering the about 30,000 cases of killings in the war on drugs” that have yet to be investigated.
Indeed, the Navotas court ruling is only the second drug war conviction of law enforcers, after the 2018 sentencing of three Caloocan City cops for the 2017 killing of Kian delos Santos. Police claimed that the 17-year-old had resisted arrest, but a CCTV footage proved otherwise.
The Philippines has always touted the Delos Santos case as proof that the country’s justice system is working, and that there was no need for the ICC to investigate the thousands of drug war killings under the Duterte administration. But of the official count of some 6,000 drug-related deaths in the country, only 52 were reviewed, with former justice secretary (now Solicitor General) Menardo Guevarra saying that four of those 52 cases have reached “actual prosecution in the courts.”
The Department of Justice panel also conceded that a review of the 52 cases indicated lapses in police operations protocols, including the lack of ballistics or paraffin test results to validate the blanket police claim of suspects shooting it out with the raiding team, the absence of autopsy or Scene of Crime Operations reports, and the use of excessive force against suspects. In 35 or majority of the cases, the erring operatives were only suspended instead of being dismissed from service.
The lack of accountability among the police and their cover-up of most crimes have long been a festering wound that has eroded people’s trust in these uniformed personnel. Recall how the few cases of police culpability that were actually prosecuted were only those caught on CCTV or cellphone cameras, and thus could not be denied. Which brings us to that long delayed recommendation of equipping police with body cameras to document what went down in their operations. It’s been years and the hoary excuse of lack of resources has been belied by the police acquiring new mobility assets and equipment worth P1.2 billion in February this year as part of its modernization program. Surely body cameras would have cost a mere fraction of such assets and would have gone a long way to make police operations more transparent and effective?
While the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) has asked for the mass resignation of high ranking police and military officers in its effort to weed out those complicit in the drug war, it has done little to identify, discipline, and reform the scalawags among its uniformed forces on the ground. Could the fanfare that greet every case filing and court ruling on police personnel be because they’re so rare, with the police feeling untouchable and banking on the guarantee of protection from the previous administration?
Now that the current administration has gone on record about taking a rehabilitative approach to the drug war, what is the DILG doing to make other cops involved in bloody drug operations accountable? Is there enough scrutiny of their past records? Are eyewitnesses offered enough protection? The recent court ruling should push the police Internal Affairs Service to do a better job and finally hold errant law enforcers accountable to the full extent of the law.
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