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Sticky probe of police generals

Depending on your appreciation of the drug problem in the country, the action of President Duterte in naming five active and retired police generals allegedly involved in illegal drugs is either rash or bold.

For the first time in our history, the highest official of the land has publicly accused high-ranking police officials of a crime that is punishable with life imprisonment. The active officials—Chief Supt. Joel Pagdilao, Edgardo Tinio and Bernardo Diaz—will be investigated by the National Police Commission (Napolcom) for possible administrative and criminal liabilities.

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Since retired chief superintendent Vicente Loot is now the mayor of Daanbantayan town in Cebu, his case will be handled by the Department of the Interior and Local Government. It is uncertain, however, if the DILG has the power to do so because the crime of which Loot is accused was supposedly committed prior to his election as mayor.

With regard to retired deputy director general Marcelo Garbo Jr., the allegation against him will be endorsed to the Department of Justice because he has reverted to civilian status.

Mr. Duterte did not present any evidence to substantiate his accusations against the named persons.  In his order to the Napolcom to investigate the active police officials, he said it should not do a zarzuela, or make-believe activity.

This directive puts the Napolcom in a bind.

The five-person collegial body was formed to supervise the Philippine National Police. With the DILG chief as ex-officio chair, it consists of three commissioners coming from the civilian sector who are not active or former members of the police and military, and one commissioner who is an active member of a law enforcement agency but who shall be considered resigned from that position upon his or her appointment.

This means Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno, a longtime political ally of the President, will lead the effort to determine the culpability, if any, of the police generals for the crime of which they have been accused.

Although their accuser is no less than the Commander in Chief, that does not strip them of their constitutional right to be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.

Unlike in a court of law, the Napolcom does not have to prove they are guilty, if at all, beyond reasonable doubt to justify their dismissal from the service and criminal prosecution. Substantial evidence, or “such amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion,” will be sufficient.

Considering the circumstances under which the Napolcom will conduct the probe, it is, figuratively speaking, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

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If it finds the generals guilty, the public may perceive it as succumbing to pressure from Malacañang and riding on the public’s sentiments against police officers engaged in the trade in illegal drugs. A guilty verdict will justify their dismissal from the service and forfeiture of their retirement benefits and, worse, criminal prosecution.

In that scenario, the generals will have to go to court to clear their names and avoid possible conviction. Considering the slow pace of justice in our country, their cases will probably be resolved only after Mr. Duterte’s term has ended.

On the other hand, if the Napolcom exonerates the generals for insufficiency of evidence, its decision will make a liar of the President. The clearance will lead to the impression that he acted rashly and without factual basis in publicly accusing them of complicity in the trade in illegal drugs.

The rebuff will, no doubt, adversely affect Mr. Duterte’s credibility the next time he discloses the names of other police officers, or local government officials, whom he believes are in cahoots with drug syndicates.

On the Napolcom’s part, a reversal of the President’s accusation would reinforce the perception of many that it is inutile in getting rid of police scalawags, and that its disciplinary proceedings against erring policemen are, to use the President’s words, a mere zarzuela.

Thus, to avoid embarrassing the President and at the same time clean up its shoddy reputation as a “commission-based” government office, the Napolcom may, regardless of the evidence presented, simply affirm the President’s accusation against the police generals.

It’s unfortunate that the President’s war against illegal drugs started off on the wrong foot. There is no question the drug problem in the country has reached alarming proportions because the ranks of the PNP have been infiltrated by drug syndicates.

The police generals may or may not be guilty of the crime of which they have been accused. It was bold of Mr. Duterte to make public intelligence reports about their alleged involvement in the trade in illegal drugs. But without supporting evidence, intelligence reports are but scraps of paper.

It is difficult to understand why Mr. Duterte, who was a prosecutor for decades, chose to shoot first before ordering the Napolcom to ask questions.

Let’s see how the Napolcom will extricate itself from this sticky situation.

Raul J. Palabrica ([email protected]) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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TAGS: Bernardo Diaz, drugs, Edgardo Tinio, Joel Pagdilao, Marcelo Garbo Jr., Napolcom, Rodrigo Duterte, Vicente Loot
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