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The promise of busting crime, and why it’s old news

Retire, the President told 239 police generals as he convened a national crime summit. At least 150 people had been kidnapped in Manila alone, and 31 banks had been robbed nationwide. Rape cases rose by 8% from the previous year.

It was 1993, and President Fidel Ramos had had it. Ramos won the presidency the previous year, the same period when 4 Americans were abducted by kidnap-for-ransom gangs. Here was a retired Constabulary general who didn’t need any lesson on peace-keeping but who was now struggling with crime. Kidnappings, bank robberies, carjacking – all these were scaring away investors. 

In a show of political will (a much bandied-about term nowadays), the usually deliberate Ramos faced the institution he once led and asked its senior generals to retire. The call caused pandemonium in the then newly-created Philippine National Police (PNP) but earned applause from a wary public that was crying for blood.

Days later, Ramos would calibrate his moves by not immediately accepting the generals’ departure. Instead, he created a 9-person committee to “process” their retirement applications.

Presidents and crime

Fighting crime isn’t just today’s fad. 

Presidents in the last 3 decades have invested money and time in anti-crime campaigns, created all types of task forces, appointed their own anti-crime “czars,” and joined numerous photo-ops with arrested big-time criminals.

Under the Ramos administration, the burden of combatting crime was passed on to the popular vice president, Joseph Estrada, who was named head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC). In a campaign where he put to good use his theatrical skills, Estrada spewed threats against criminals, paraded them before the cameras, and created elite units that gunned down gangsters on highways and raided safehouses with TV crew in tow.

From the ashes of kidnappers rose Estrada’s chief crime-buster, a clean-cut police officer who would later become chief of the PNP, run for president, and get elected as senator: Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, commander of the PACC’s Task Force Habagat.

In its prime, the PACC virtually ruled the PNP, its men almost invincible and the envy of lesser mortals in the police-military establishment. The PACC lorded it over, and in the process made the PNP second class in its own backyard. 

But the sensational killing of suspected robbers on a major highway in Quezon City in 1996 exposed PACC’s weaknesses and ruined the reputation of Task Force Habagat. The Kuratong Baleleng rubout cost the career of Habagat officers including Lacson, and triggered a protracted, messy legal battle that only ended two decades later, in 2012, when the Supreme Court finally upheld a lower court’s decision that dismissed the criminal charges against Lacson.

The next president, Estrada, had to fight crime again. But he had bigger problems to confront; he was forced out of power after more than two years in office over corruption charges.

After assuming the presidency in 2001, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo created her own National Anti-Crime Commission that had its own anti-kidnapping unit, the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force (Naktaf).

But unable to stop big-time kidnappings, Naktaf was put on the backburner by Mrs Arroyo, who approved the creation of Pacer, or the Police Anti-Crime Emergency Response, ordered to run after kidnap gangs and drug dealers with a specific deadline. It was headed by her favorite general, retired PNP chief Hermogenes Ebdane Jr, who vowed to use "military tactics" to succeed.

Yet, kidnappings and drug operations continued in 2003, prompting Mrs Arroyo to appoint this time her other favorite general, former defense chief Angelo Reyes, as Naktaf chief. It didn’t bother Arroyo that Reyes had no experience battling criminals. What was important was a show of military might. Reyes and Naktaf had their own controversies.

The incumbent Aquino government shied away from a bombastic anti-crime campaign but took the extreme path of a methodical, data-driven approach via former interior secretary Mar Roxas’ Lambat Sibat program. It’s almost anemic and too process-oriented that the community barely felt it. The Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission is headed by the low-key Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, who is not exactly Roxas' avid fan.

Did all these efforts “suppress” crime (the favorite new word of presidential front runner Rodrigo Duterte)?

Certainly not. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about it again today. On the contrary, the problems in the main organization tasked to fight crime, the PNP, persist. And a holistic approach to criminality continues to elude policymakers.

Quick fix 

Presidential candidates Duterte and Grace Poe have quick fixes to the crime situation. The Davao mayor vows to end – er, suppress – crime in 6 months through an elite force composed of Army soldiers and cops; Poe, meanwhile, intends to appoint a Marine combatant as her anti-crime czar.

The subtext of the two candidates’ approach to crime is that things can – and should – be done fast. 

As senatorial candidate Rafael Alunan III reminded everyone on Friday, April 22, during Rappler’s senatorial debate, Ramos did the “shock treatment” after he became president. Alunan cited this example to defend Duterte’s campaign pledge to end crime in 6 months.

“I asked him what he meant by that. We had a long chat,” Alunan said in elaborating on Duterte’s 6-month deadline. “He said, it's just like the way you did it in the PNP – shock treatment,” added Alunan, who served as interior and local government secretary under the Ramos administration. “We weeded out 68 generals and colonels. The shock treatment during the first 6 months kept the other [corrupt officials] under the radar. What we were doing was professional, fair, just.”

The “shock treatment” didn't happen in Ramos' first months in office, though. Yet while the forced retirement of PNP generals happened eventually, kidnappings continued. Crime did not only persist under Ramos, it soared. It was one of the biggest headaches of the general-turned-president that not even his popular vice president, Estrada, could put an end to.

Why?

4 concerns

Because a shock-and-awe approach only addresses one aspect of the problem, and achieves temporary relief.

It is effective in boosting the political stock of leaders, but it’s not enough to sustain a peaceful environment through the years. Deadlines and elite units appeal to you and me, but rarely do they untangle the web of interconnected problems related to criminality.

Let's just look at 4 of the many roadblocks in effective anti-crime management:

1. Professionalism vs patronage. The President may choose the most honest and competent PNP chief, but he can only do so much. In the appointment of police chiefs in towns, cities, provinces and regions, the mayor or governor has the last say. From a shortlist given to him/her, the local government official will make his/her choice, merit be damned. In an ideal world, a responsible politician will choose the most competent and honest cop to head the police. In a world named the Philippines, that's more the exception than the rule.

2. A politicized PNP. Bear in mind that the PNP is a relatively new organization that is still going through birth pains. A merger of the defunct Philippine Constabulary (PC) and the Integrated National Police (INP), the PNP was created in 1991 – a marriage between the military-oriented PC and the local-based INP. Philippine Military Academy graduates, trained in combat and not in community engagement (which is the core campaign of any effective anti-crime campaign), continue to hold leadership posts in the PNP, sidelining the civilian-oriented police who seldom get the plum posts. Of course, the situation isn’t as bad as a decade ago. But add to this the constant jockeying for posts each time a new president is elected, and we can be sure that the new president will find it hard to resist the temptation of putting his own men, even if undeserving, in the PNP. Just ask Alan Purisima. And need we be reminded of Purisima's mortal sin last year?

3. Crime scene and beyond. The sad reality is, criminal cases rarely succeed in courts. And when the police are given deadlines like 6 months, chances are they will aim for quick results that will not stand the scrutiny of a judge or the hungry pockets of a prosecutor. Criminal investigation is sloppy as it is, and data proves this: Crime solution efficiency, or the percentage of solved crimes out of reported crimes, was only 37% and 28% in 2012 and 2013, respectively. This hasn’t improved much, and it’s compounded by incompetence and corruption in the prosecution sector and the courts. (The assumption here is that the next president intends to bring criminals to court, not kill them.)

4. Shortsightedness in the face of sophisticated crimes. And what is crime nowadays, anyway? Does it just involve criminals according to Duterte's parochial definition – the drug dealer, the addict, the thief, the kidnapper? How about crimes committed online by cyber thieves? Or those who steal our money via the ATM? How about criminals who smuggle products into our shores, or who traffic our women?

Can this all end in 6 months, courtesy of yet another "ranger-trained" special unit (in Duterte's plan) or yet another bemedaled officer (in Poe's plan)? 

We've heard and seen this before. Crime again becomes a casualty of short memory, which seems to afflict us all every election season. – Rappler.com

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .

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