Police power must belong to the people

Police power must belong to the people

The case of a police officer brutally torturing a drug suspect, that has gone viral in a leaked video clip, is just an infected sore that happened to burst in public.

Don't get me wrong, I don't discount its seriousness for calling it a sore. But in reality it's just one among many sores on the body of the police force.

The video was shocking, no doubt. Many people confessed they were too squeamish to watch it through to the end. But it's only because no such graphic evidence of official torture has surfaced before, not because it never happened.

People know or suspect that this kind of things have been going on behind closed doors in some safe houses or dungeons or, in this case, a café behind a police station in Nakhon Sawan.

We all have read or heard about cases of detainees found dead in jail cells. More often than not, their deaths were found to be "self-inflicted". While many questions were left hanging, hardly any official was ever implicated, let alone prosecuted or jailed.

But, no, police beating up suspects or detainees is not a secret.

No policemen can deny that brutal methods have been used in their criminal investigations.

A retired senior policeman admitted to an interviewer that he himself had used force to extract confessions from suspects. "Most police did it in those days," he said matter-of-factly.

The only reason it was never exposed is that digital technology did not exist back then.

As a child, I personally witnessed drug users being beaten up by police. Plain-clothed policemen would visit our soi at night and grab any hapless drug user passing by off to a dark alley and start "interrogating" him. This happened on a regular basis.

It's safe to say that beating up suspects is a long police tradition. However, truth be told, the video of Pol Col Thitisan Utthanaphon -- or "Joe Ferrari" as he is known in some circles -- brutally manhandling his victim was not by itself the cause of the public uproar that followed.

Nor, I doubt, will it be the last straw. There have been tonnes of straws put on the horse's back before this and they barely caused the horse to buckle.

Abuses committed by the Thai police and public complaints against them are too numerous to list. Corruption, bribery, patronage system, payments for promotion, favouritism, unresponsiveness to public complaints -- these are just some of the sores on the police force.

Among public complaints, the police have been accused of turning a blind eye to various illegal activities -- gambling, prostitution, drug dealing, human trafficking, etc. It's widely believed that many if not most senior police officers are involved in or benefit from these illicit activities.

Accused murderer Pol Col Thitisan became a station police chief, has been a proud owner of a small fleet of super-expensive cars and has hundreds of millions of baht stashed away in his bank accounts -- at the age of 41 with a salary of less than 50,000 baht a month. Go figure.

What people find most appalling, in my view, is the fact that policemen often behave above the law or break the law with impunity. Of course, not all police officers are equally vile. Unfortunately, when you are in the same basket as rotten fish, you can't help smelling like one.

And that is really sad because we need good policemen badly. They should earn the opportunity to grow in their careers based on their performance. However, that is not possible in the current system.

To be a "good" policeman, you must go with the flow or you become an outcast.

Do policemen -- past and present -- know their reputation is in tatters? Of course, they do. But they also believe their organisation is too important for anyone in power to want to change it in any significant way despite repeated cries for reform.

Virtually every government has promised to reform the police. It was among the first promises made by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha after he grabbed power in a coup d'etat.

That was more than seven years ago and there's nothing to show for it. Even if two bills are currently pending in parliament purportedly to reform the police, don't believe for a minute they will lead to anything substantive.

The police are too important a political tool to allow them to be messed with by anyone not in the elite group. Not until political power truly belongs to the people can genuine police reform begin.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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