Rotten to the core

I salute the brave whistleblower who recently brought to light the rampant police abuse of a suspect. This time, it was at the hands of Colonel Thitisant "Jo Ferrari" Utthanaphon, a former police chief of Nakhon Sawan police station who was caught on video torturing 24-year-old drug suspect Jirapong Tanapat to death. He placed six plastic bags over his head.

The damning evidence, which includes the 41-year-old senior officer recording an amphetamine overdose as the likely cause of Jirapong's demise, has put him behind bars as he awaits trial.

The high-rolling career of this killer cop is not any different from previous cases of malfeasance in Thai law enforcement.

A common thread that runs through this is the extent to how the system, which already lacks accountability, is manipulated, making it all the easier for police officers with criminal intent to worm themselves into the good books of their superiors, often crooked themselves, and rise in the ranks while exploiting cracks in the system to accumulate ill-gotten gains. Far from hiding their "riches" for fear of an internal investigation over their questionable wealth, they flaunt it.

So it comes as no surprise that Thitisant got his moniker "Jo Ferrari" because of his passion for luxury cars and the highfalutin lifestyle that he purchased through dishonest means, which no one found unusual enough to ask questions given his monthly salary of 43,330 baht. Yet, he owned a luxury Bangkok mansion and a fleet of supercars including a 47 million baht Lamborghini Aventador.

The toxic nature of Thitisant's behaviour, marked with quenchless greed, barbaric police abuse tactics and wilful dereliction of duty, has become a case in point that once again sheds light on police brutality in Thailand and the urgency for reforms.

What makes this an interesting case study is that it could happen to anybody who knows how to exploit a weak system and police subculture.

Raised in Bangkok, Thitisant studied at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School prior to becoming a cadet. He graduated from the Royal Police Cadet Academy in 2003 and rose rapidly through the ranks after joining the Narcotics Suppression Division. He is known to have been well-liked by his superiors.

To get an insider's view on the case, I recently spoke with former police investigator-turned-criminologist, Krisanaphong Poothakool, who spent over two decades in the Thai Royal Police Force.

An advocate of police reform, he said three issues can be seen from the investigation so far. The first is the rather narcissistic and brutish nature of the accused. Second, it shows how elements within the police subculture allow for misconduct within the ranks to occur and resist any form of accountability to keep them in check and last the superficial segment of society that doesn't hold people accountable for their actions as long as they are not hurting anyone.

He also went as far as to say that working for both traffic police and the investigation unit opens opportunities for vulnerable officers to turn rogue. It is here they observe the power in their hands to take bribes and extort while being off the radar. However, thanks to mobile technology and social media, prosecuting corrupt cops for their offences has become easier.

Becoming a police investigator is a dream job for many officers because of all the cool stuff they get to do, he said. Besides travelling, they get to broaden their horizons by investigating difficult-to-crack cases and the adrenaline-pumping excitement that goes with that.

However, Krisanaphong said becoming an investigator is no easy task and unfortunately does not solely depend on the person's intelligence or the fact that he/she topped the class at the police academy. He said much of it depends on the group subculture he/she finds himself in and how they can cosy up to his officiating commander.

Of course, this is not taught at the police academy, where lessons are more geared towards an idealistic approach to police work. It is an entirely different ball game when they actually work at a police station where they have to learn from scratch how to adapt to their "new" work environment. Gradually, they become a product of the type of subculture they have been put into.

Officers assigned to the narcotics division require a high standard of work ethic and professionalism to keep away from dabbling in bribes and extortion that are customary and reasonable for ill-gotten gains for many in law enforcement.

He said it is easy to get swayed into such criminal practices because a lack of accountability opens loopholes to do so with little to no retribution. Done often, it becomes a habit and reflects the group subculture they work under.

Krisanaphong said going up the ranks in the narcotics unit comes with enormous power. You get to have numerous subordinates working under you as well as make connections with the underworld, thus making it a breeding ground for anyone who is already greedy to take the shortcut to become rich and powerful.

With police reforms still a long way off and the dismal effort from the Thai Royal Police to implement accountability within the ranks, he suggests that Thai society should it take upon itself to make police officers accountable for their actions.

For starters, call them out if they see anything unusual as was in the case of Thitisant.

Krisanaphong remarked: "I believe that questions about the former police superintendent's unusual wealth should have been raised long before the video clip of Thitisant suffocating the drug dealer was put up on social media. Everyone saw that he resided in a mansion that cost hundreds of millions of baht and drove supercars around the province. Why didn't anyone think of tipping media outlets to investigate the matter if they could not trust the police to do their job?

"Instead we see people cosying up to people in power in the hope that they can benefit from these connections. The focus is on obtaining material wealth, no matter the cost and this is where the line between right and wrong is blurred. If you subscribe to a corrupt system in the hopes of personal gain, you are no better than Thitisant and contribute to the lawlessness we see in our society.

"Positive change can only occur when everyone is made accountable for their actions."

Yvonne Bohwongprasert is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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