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Imagining a police-free Philippines

By Angel Martinez Published Mar 04, 2021 6:49 pm Updated Mar 04, 2021 7:08 pm

In the span of a month, we witnessed the murders of Frank and Sonia Gregorio, the unlawful detainment of Christine Dacera’s presumed rapists, and the harassment of student activists at the hands of those meant to serve and protect us.

Each time, government officials were quick to do damage control, reassuring the public that these are isolated incidents currently under investigation, which is a paradox in itself. But we know how that’s going to end. 

No matter how many cops they “put on probation” or training programs they launch to concretize plans of change, their Band-Aid solutions leave us right where we started. And yet, we continue to accept these same “reforms” for the past four years instead of tending to the systemic rot festering within the PNP.

Unfortunately, this same apparatus of abuse endangers lives in other parts of the world as well, even those that claim to be the land of the free.

Last June, the Black Lives Matter movement in the US was in full force, following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Activists proceeded to channel their anger into a revolutionary movement, one that ultimately called for the abolition of the police. 

  Protesters raise their fists during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Stockholm, Sweden, June 3, 2020. (AFP)

This controversial framework of thinking looks at a preventive rather than a punitive response to wrongdoings: first, reallocate funds from law enforcement agencies to other social services, then establish community-based systems of care. Crime and poverty are positively correlated, after all.

Why throw the homeless man behind bars or kill the drug addict instead of providing access to shelter and healthcare? Why respond to potentially violent situations with violence, rather than learning to peacefully de-escalate them?

In the existential comedy series The Good Place, the character Michael unknowingly makes a compelling argument for this case: “People improve when they get external love and support. How can we hold it against them when they don’t?” 

As a community, we have grown accustomed to the usual way justice is served and failed to consider alternatives to coercion and incarceration.

While far more developed countries already struggle to implement this, we seem to have an even longer way to go since our current model of policing thrives on power imbalance. Some may argue that only bad cops subscribe to this belief but there’s no denying that this institutional problem is passed down the moment fledgling officers commit to the profession.

Police culture embodies a cult of masculinity, where aggression and danger are crucial to the tasks they perform. Anyone who wants to enter the field is required to undergo three phases of marksmanship training and learn to act according to a militaristic approach.

By entrusting people with this much power without teaching them to wield it properly, we breed a new generation of trigger-happy cops.

To make matters worse, these methods have only ever succeeded in harming those without the means to defend themselves, while simultaneously protecting those with power and influence.

Public officials guilty of graft and corruption manage to gain public trust and win elections, but ordinary citizens are thrown behind bars for stealing a pack of chocolates or two cans of luncheon meat.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon: the PNP has been abusing its authority long before the start of President Duterte’s term. But Duterte was the first statesman to openly encourage this behavior and provide them with invincibility.

By capitalizing on the masses’ collective anxiety and promising a false sense of safety, Duterte successfully used the police as tools to enforce discipline through violence. He has relied on this approach throughout every major crisis he’s faced — from the deadly siege in the city of Marawi to the current health emergency.

Even when we come to our senses and acknowledge that officials have been crossing the line for far too long, we approach these calls to action with a sense of hesitance and resignation.

At the height of his infamous war on drugs, Duterte publicly ordered officers to kill addicts and vowed to pardon “as many as 10, 15 of them every day.”

In an episode of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons that features our own Manila Bilibid, an inmate tells host Raphael Rowe that innocent men like him are victimized by policemen aiming to make the most arrests. In order to meet this quota, they often plant evidence and threaten people into confessing sins they didn’t commit.

This indemnity bestowed upon policemen is only further strengthened by our judiciary’s inherent lack of transparency and accountability. Anybody in power can easily pay their way out of a crime, whether by bribing law enforcers or forcibly silencing witnesses.

Without implementing more comprehensive reforms like a strengthened witness protection program or an extensive freedom of information act, corrupt politicians and oligarchs can eventually circumvent our legislation and rise to power again.

As a community, we have grown accustomed to the usual way justice is served and failed to consider alternatives to coercion and incarceration.

We grew up regarding our policemen as beacons of courage, in charge of catching the bad guys. Young boys either looked up to them or cowered in fear at their authority — I mean, who hasn’t heard “Wag kang magulo, ipapahuli kita sa pulis!” growing up?

And with our current media landscape saturated with propaganda, it becomes increasingly hard to imagine a world without them. News stories paint those willing to do anything in their line of duty in a favorable light while TV shows like Ang Probinsyano and our beloved Brooklyn Nine-Nine give us such endearingly human protagonists to empathize with. 

Even when we come to our senses and acknowledge that officials have been crossing the line for far too long, we approach these calls to action with a sense of hesitance and resignation. We instantly admit defeat before the battle begins. “Wala nang magagawa, dati nang ganito.” What are the odds of success if it’s us against the status quo?

But refusing to acknowledge that this problem warrants a drastic change in the way our society operates is highly indicative of one’s privilege.

If we deem the idea of protecting the marginalized from unwarranted brutality idealistic and irrational, it’s clear that our comfort blinds us from the gravity of the situation. I doubt we witness what they’re going through from the comforts of our gated subdivisions and high-rise office buildings.

This mindset isn’t something we can easily get rid of but, hopefully, the fact that we are starting a discourse on the topic shows that we are slowly getting ready to redefine safety and justice and maybe imagine a police-free Philippines.

The very least we could do is remain open to discussion and educate ourselves on why such demands are made in the first place. Now is no time to prioritize what is realistic over what is right — not when this system continues to claim innocent lives.

Banner and thumbnail photo art by Paola Santos