The PNP was a colonial creation. Now, it’s become an institution terrorizing the people it promised to serve.
On April 21, 2020, just a few weeks after a lockdown was enforced in Manila due to the coronavirus pandemic, Winston Ragos, who was mentally challenged, was shot dead by policeman Daniel Florendo Jr. in Quezon City. Two bullets pierced Ragos’ body before he fell to the ground. Ragos allegedly violated quarantine protocols, which were, at the time, closely monitored and controlled by the Philippine National Police. According to the latest updates on the case, Florendo is facing administrative and criminal probes.
A few months later, on December 20, mother-and-son Sonia and Frank Gregorio were fatally shot by off-duty cop Jonel Nuezca in Paniqui, Tarlac. The cause of the dispute was over the use of boga, a locally made noisemaker commonly used during the Christmas season, although other accounts suggest that it was also due to a land ownership dispute that brewed between Nuezca and the Gregorios. Nuezca surrendered an hour later, and was charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty.
Then on May 31, 2021, a 52-year-old woman was killed, this time in Barangay Greater Fairview, Quezon City, when a drunk cop by the name of Hensie Zinampan grabbed Lilybeth Valdez by the hair before shooting her on the neck. In an interview, Zinampan said that he was enraged after Valdez’ sons beat him up and that they did not respect him as a policeman.
Three things set these cases apart from those that precede them. First, the victims were all civilians who held no power — both over the cops they were against and the institutions these cops belonged to. Second, they were all caught on camera, shared online, and seen by the public — causing massive outrage even with Filipinos who were not staunch critics of the government. Third, these three cases involved neither activists, dissidents, nor alleged drug addicts or pushers; they were all regular civilians who were in the wrong situation at the wrong time.
The effect of these three brutal point-blank killings of ordinary Filipinos shook the archipelago and caused waves of outcry. They also further eroded the public image of an institution embattled with years of corruption, extrajudicial killings, and fatal misbehaviors — paving the way for questions on their relevance and renewing the demand for the reform or abolition of the police, especially coming along the heels of the ACAB argument tied with the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted in the US in 2020.
Protected by the Palace
Over the past five years of the Duterte administration, the Philippine National Police (PNP) has seen a steady increase in their funding. From PHP 111.6 billion in 2017, they are slated to receive 191.1 billion this year — a total of PHP 79.5 billion in additional funding. The PNP’s budget for 2021 is even higher than major agencies in the country. It is bigger than the budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (PHP 176.9 billion), the Department of Agriculture (PHP 71 billion), and the Department of Labor and Employment (PHP 37.1 billion) — agencies that have far more obvious relevance to the recuperation of the country from the economic and societal onslaught of the pandemic. In fact, it is only about PHP 19 billion short of matching the budget of the country’s health department.
The PNP’s mother agency, the Department of Interior and Local Government, is also among the biggest winners in the 2021 national budget, with PHP 249.3 billion overall allocation. About 76 percent of this is allocated for the PNP — PHP 169.73 billion for personnel services, including (but not limited to) compensations, allowances, bonuses, and benefits. The military and the police have a combined budget of PHP 54.6 billion solely for pensions.
The protection the police institution enjoys from the administration, however, is not limited to finances; it also extends to the moral and institutional safeguards given by the palace. Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war has become one of the most controversial phenomena in the country. What started as a campaign promise soon turned into a way for the Philippine National Police to kill at least 7,884 Filipinos, according to data from Rappler and the PNP’s Directorate for Operations. Some estimates by human rights organizations even put the death toll at around 27,000. Emboldened by Duterte himself, the Philippine National Police has been involved in merciless assassination of civilians, as well as more than 150 activists, human rights workers, and critics. Even the coronavirus pandemic did not quench this thirst for blood. According to Human Rights Watch, the Drug War killings increased by more than 50 percent in the early months of the pandemic. Of the thousands of cases, only one has resulted in the conviction of erring police officers.
The palace often belies extrajudicial killings in the country. In 2017, an Amnesty International report detailing the systematic targeting of often poor drug suspects was refuted by Malacañang. Additionally, human rights groups have also become a target of Duterte’s spite. In 2018, he said that they have become “tools of drug lords.”
Vice President Leni Robredo, one of the last remaining opposing forces in the Palace, has also not been spared by Duterte’s attempts to protect the police. After Robredo made statements demanding for the revision of the methods and tactics against illegal drugs in the country, she was removed from her post as cochairperson of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs on November 24, 2019 — just around two weeks since her institution in the same position. Despite this, Robredo published a report in 2020 and exposed that only 1 percent of shabu and drug money had been seized since the War on Drugs began in 2016.
To Serve and Protect?
In 2016, a survey by the Social Weather Stations put the public’s trust rating of the Police at 47.5 percent — three points lower than their score from the previous period. Their net public trust was also higher in rural areas where they scored 65–23 points higher than their urban areas.
After the 2016 survey, no reliable study on the public’s trust rating on the PNP can be found by COMMONER. However, a 2020 study by international research body Gallup shows that 84 percent of Filipinos feel relatively secure because of the country’s police force. Though a far cry from Singapore, the study’s top scorer and Duterte’s benchmark for development and security, which gained 97 points along with Turkmenistan, the Philippines’ ranking is higher than that of many other countries.
A report by the Commission on Audit in 2019 also shows stellar performance by the Philippine National Police. It was able to hire 227,730 personnel — almost 59,000 more personnel compared to 2016. That’s 2 police personnel for every 1,000 people in the Philippines. They were also able to conduct more than 21.6 million foot and mobile patrol operations, reduce the national index crime rate by 22.65 percent, and respond to 99.65 percent of crime incidents within fifteen minutes. While this looks rosy, these operations also included relatively minor incidents like domestic disputes, drunken neighbors, and a noisy karaoke session late at night. Major crimes such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, murder, etc. were comparatively rare — which is sure to be a hit with mainstream media.
In 2019, only 36.77 percent of high-value targets were arrested and only 39.82 percent of arrest warrants successfully led to arrests within 30 days upon the receipt of a warrant. This means that most of the criminals that should have been arrested were left at large.
From the COA figures alone, we cannot deduce the nature of these activities, nor can we safely assume that the decline in crime rate directly translates to safety, as it can also be a by-product of unreported crimes due to fear of intimidation, cover-ups, or distrust toward the state of justice in the country.
We were listed as the most dangerous country for journalists in Southeast Asia in 2018 and the most dangerous for environmentalists in the whole world in 2019. The United Nations has also divulged documents that the PNP are planting guns in Drug War operations (sometimes even using the same handguns for different suspects). The Duterte administration and the police have also been the subject of intense examination by the International Criminal Court, extending to opening a case of crimes against humanity — comparable to genocide due to the thousands of deaths and human rights violations persisting in the Philippines and perpetuated by the police force. Even our own Department of Justice has admitted that the police are not following the proper protocols in Drug War operations, even while the PNP has opened only 61 of the thousands of files they have on the bloody crackdown.
A Centuries-Old History of Abuse
It would be unfair to say that the Philippine National Police is in such a state simply because of the current administration. The empowering rhetoric and material support from the Palace simply further corrupts an already rotten institution. The current policing system in the country is only a product of the colonial influences that extend as far back as the Spanish colonial period, operating alongside a heavily militarized Spanish Guardia Civil. The American occupation of the archipelago gave birth to the Philippine Constabulary, when the policing system was remodeled to follow that of the United States — which, as we know today, is deeply rooted in a racist history.
The Philippine Constabulary later on became the Philippine National Police — an outcome of the 1986 EDSA Revolution and the subsequent creation of the 1987 Constitution. But the police we know today might not be the police imagined by the framers of the laws of our land; after all, the police were designed to be civilian in character. But the early Philippine National Police only absorbed former Philippine Constabulary Integrated National Police officers and members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It should have also been a nonpartisan institution, concerned with protecting and serving at the local government level. In fact, the Code of Ethics of the Philippine National Police bars officers from seeking political patronage, as such an act, according to their own code, is professionally and institutionally unethical.
But that is not the character of the Philippine National Police now. It has effectively retained the major problems of its predecessor. It has become highly politicized, militarized, and corrupt, with the bad actors within its own system. The institution, because of its relationship with the powers-that-be, has become a channel for political elites to exercise power over the less privileged. The president can assign officers in key positions, and in effect, wield immense control on the movements, decisions, and interests of the institution itself, affecting the political and economic reality of the country.
There are checks and balances designated to turn over presidential calls, but this is carried out by the Congress — another institution composed of political figures who have their own political and economic interests. Luis Igaya, in his work The Political Economy of the Philippine Democratic Transition published in 1999, said that the independence of police and military is not really in the hands of politico-legal institutions, but rather is held by powerful political interests that have their grip on society and use state institutions to advance their own interests. His observation still rings true to this day, which is why it is not rare for the police force to intervene in demolitions of informal settlements to give way for the construction of a mall, for example, and why they are also present in driving out farmers protesting against their landlords.
Bribery, the patron system, and corruption are prevalent in the PNP — from recruitment, logistics procurements, and allocation of funds and resources. The police have also been involved in criminal activities such as narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, auto theft, and even murder. Falsifying evidence and obstruction of investigations have also been observed in the institution.
With President Duterte standing firmly behind it and deliberately overlooking misdemeanors, the Philippine National Police has become one of the most powerful institutions of the state. As we have seen in the past five years, more than maintaining order, they have terrorized civilians, killed innocent children, harassed indigenous peoples, and murdered dissenters of the Duterte government. Afforded with financial firepower, they have been able to peer into our private lives, control our streets, and, as evidenced by the past year, dictate the country’s public health measures.
Abolish the Police
Reforming the police system may be one solution, but is it the right solution?
Reforming the institution means changing things here and there, much like taking out a malignant tumor from an infected area. But what if the tumor has already crawled to other parts of the body after being there for years? So deeply entrenched are the ills of the Philippine National Police that some of its issues are, quite literally, more than a hundred years old. In fact, we collectively have no recollection of a certain point in time wherein the police served only the interest of the public. Children have been killed by the police. Human rights workers, community journalists, activists, and regular civilians — they have all been subjected to intimidation, torture, and murder executed by our own policemen. Is there really a compromise that could fix this, when policemen are only doing what they believe is their job?
Who the Philippine National Police is today is the logical outcome of what past administrations allowed it to be, so it’s hard to rationalize another recourse than wiping it out entirely, replacing it with other measures that can better serve its existing functions, and remaking a police force devoid of avenues for corruption, abuse of power, and militarism.
What if, instead of pouring billions into the country’s police force, we find ways to empower the public economically? What if we divert PNP funds to education, housing, mental health care, community-driven safety measures? Wouldn’t that suffocate criminal activities even better than playing whack-a-mole because they directly address the primary causes of criminality?
What if instead of buying highly powered guns and ammunition, we fund the training of professionals who can better respond to public safety concerns — such as mental health workers, social development personnel, and even educators? After all, not all police reports require the presence of cops and guns; some of them require psychosocial counseling, behavioral reforms, and long-term guidance. In fact, in other countries, cops do not usually carry firearms, and they rely on other means to deescalate situations. Even Norway, a country that has once been shaken by a mass shooting, has kept their tradition of having a demilitarized police. The same goes with Britain, New Zealand, Iceland, Ireland, and many others.
These are all easier said than done, and would entail a whole-of-government approach with a special spotlight on the Palace and Congress. This would also mean a recalibration of the country’s priorities with a renewed focus on closing economic gaps, reimagining our idea of “criminal justice,” shifting our view of the raison d’etre behind criminal behaviors, and dismantling systems influenced by or that are direct products of colonialism. This could take decades to fully materialize, but the outrage we have seen against the Philippine National Police shows that having a Philippines wherein a militarized police is nonexistent, and a just, fair, and safe society is driven by community efforts, is not implausible.
Things are clearly amiss in the country’s policing system because of its history and nature, and so discussions advocating for its abolition are not just out of spite toward the institution but are also about thinking of the future of the country.
The deaths listed in the beginning of this article are just a fraction of the grave crimes policemen have commited. It’s even a smaller fraction of how the current policing system affects other areas of society — both in terms of budget allocation and the PNP’s direct participation in the preservation of political and economic powers.
All things considered, this only looks like the beginning of a longer bout. What we have to focus on is whether any of these issues will yield actual results, or if they’ll just end up as another folder in the PNP’s files.