In Cebu, cops turn to CHR, 'Project Pokemon' to keep drug war abuse-free

MANILA, Philipppines – When Joel Doria was assigned to head the Cebu City Police Office in July 2016, he had a huge problem on his hands.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) had just begun its war on drugs and in Cebu City, the change of guard prompted by the new administration didn't sit well with the mayor.

To add to his problems, Doria felt concern over the repeated occurrence of suspects who "fought back" during anti-drug operations.

"During the start of the campaign, we intensified operations. However, we saw that a lot of suspects fought back," Doria, a senior superintendent, told Rappler.

The solution was simple.

"Our operatives are new so before we deployed them, we requested the director of the Commission on Human Rights in Region 7 to conduct a seminar with our operatives. We had two batches of seminars for our operatives," said Doria, recalling the beginnings of his tour of duty as Cebu City's top cop.

It was a "refresher" of sorts for police to remind them of what should and shouldn't be done during police operations. 

His preparations did not end there. Police reached out to local communities and worked with the Association of Barangay Councils, covering 80 barangays (villages) in the city.

"We signed a memorandum of agreement with them so that they will assist us also," he added.

The result? Thousands of operations conducted without – according to Doria – reports of human rights violations.

His efforts in implementing a drug campaign that's as peaceful as possible didn't go unnoticed. Doria, a graduate of the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) Class of 1992, is one of 3 police who are among the Metrobank Foundation's Outstanding Filipinos for 2017.

AWARD. Senior Superintendent Joel Doria (3rd from left, first row) poses with fellow awardees, Metrobank Foundation officials, and President Rodrigo Duterte. Malacau00f1ang photo

AWARD. Senior Superintendent Joel Doria (3rd from left, first row) poses with fellow awardees, Metrobank Foundation officials, and President Rodrigo Duterte.

Malacau00f1ang photo

"Facing a crowd in police uniform has never been an issue for me in 26 years of police service. But standing here in the midst of the House of Representatives is an intense, humbling experience. To speak before you may be my greatest challenge yet," said Doria during a courtesy call on lawmakers at the Batasang Pambansa on Wednesday, September 6.

Uneasy times

Doria, former chief of Pasay City, arrived in Cebu City shortly after then newly-installed regional commander Chief Superintendent Noli Taliño was installed as part of a major revamp in key command posts. Doria replaced a city police chief whom the mayor, Tomas Osmeña, preferred.

"I told him to work hard and prove that you deserve to be the director of the Cebu City Police Office. He has my full trust and confidence," said Taliño of Doria upon the latter's appointment.

Osmeña then announced he would stop anti-drug efforts, including giving incentives to newly-installed cops, including Doria.

While Doria acknowledged the awkward relationship at the get-go, he was quick to downplay it. While theirs isn't the closest of relationships, the mayor, he said, congratulated him via text message for the award.

Given the pushback from Osmeña then, Doria said they chose to focus on officials in the grassroots level. Media cooperation was also vital.

"Through the media, we requested the suspects not to fight back to avoid bloodshed," he said.

At the same time, the city police officer introduced "Project Pokemon" or "Pakigbatukan Og Sumpoon Ang Krimen Ug Ang Epekto sa Illegal Nga Drogas Nga Makadaut Og Makaguba sa Nados" – a fairly winding name for their anti-drug campaign. In English, it means Project Fight and Eradicate Crime and Illegal Drugs that are Detrimental to the Nation.

Doria said they picked the name because it was unique, so most criminals didn't know what was coming. 

"Project Pokemon" is a variation of the PNP's "one-time, big-time" approach – meaning the simultaneous operations to serve search warrants and make arrests.

"What is unique to the project is its comprehensive breadth: it targets all types of street crimes and, most especially, it involves crime prevention activities such as police patrol and police-community relations activities," reads the Metrobank Foundation's profile on Doria.

To date, Cebu City police have seized over P80 million in contraband, and arrested more than 1,700 suspects – including big-time crime personalities.

Doria said only one death has been reported as a result of a police operation in the city this year. This happened, he said, because the suspect was not from the city and was not exposed to their campaign.

Drug war controversy

Doria joins two other cops – Chief Inspector Rosalino Ibay Jr and Police Officer 3 Shiela May Pansoy – as awardees of the Metrobank Foundation. Four teachers and 3 soldiers complete the roster of 2017 awardees. 

Winners were awarded P1 million each and a "Flame" trophy. 

That Doria was awarded specifically for an anti-criminality and anti-drug campaign in Cebu City is interesting, to say the least, given the criticism the police force has had to defend itself from since the drug war began.

While on paper, it's the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) that leads anti-drug operations nationwide, on the streets it's the PNP that's had to do the bulk of the legwork.

Since the start of the drug war, police have been accused of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings. It's a claim they have denied to no end.

But recent cases have made it all the more difficult for police to insist on the regularity of all operations. In Caloocan City, cops killed 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, allegedly because he fought back during a drug raid. But evidence has indicated otherwise.

Police have also been accused of killing 19-year-old Carl Arnaiz, who they claim robbed a taxi driver. The supposed circumstances of Arnaiz's death, however, have been questioned.

It doesn't help that the PNP has had a chilly relationship with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa has accused the CHR – a constitutional commission mandated to check on abuses by state forces – of seeing only the failures and never the successes of government. (READ: No more CHR? No problem, say Lorenzana, Dela Rosa)

While the PNP and the CHR recently met to discuss how to work better, President Rodrigo Duterte himself blocked a CHR request for case folders linked to the drug war.

Doria, when asked about these controversies, only smiled weakly and shrugged.

Experience has taught him that it's through teamwork that police can fulfill their promise "to serve and protect." –