A deadly police trend

On Wednesday, 24-year-old Police Lance Corporal Nitikorn Kulawilas shot himself in the head with a pistol and died at the Phaya Thai police station. The young traffic policeman was the fifth officer to take his own life since January.

If the average police suicide rate per year is anything to go by, 25 more families may lose their beloved son or daughter this year.

According to the Police Department, the number of officers taking their own life is steadily on the rise. The annual average number of suicides over the past five years is 29.17. Last year, it rose to 31.

Like with previous police suicides, Pol L/Corp Nitikorn's superiors attributed the young man’s death to deep depression from work stress and family problems. In short, they said it was an individual problem.

The frustrations he had shared in a Line chat room, however, reveal a much deeper structural problem within the police force. In his Line chats, reported by the Krungthep Turakij newspaper, he discussed the causes of work stress junior policemen routinely face without support from their seniors. Among them: an endless stream of orders without follow-ups and work assignments without budget support.

To fulfil the orders, junior policemen must pay for their own field investigations, including paying informants, despite their meagre salaries. He also talked about the “organisational culture” of the subordinates, “taking care” of the bosses, unfair promotions, and unreasonable moves to new positions that make a junior policeman’s life hard. All of this is on top of the very dangerous nature of the work itself. He also urged the police bigwigs to tackle these problems. That was before he took his own life.

Given the standard reaction from police bigwigs, the latest police suicide was again treated as stemming from personal problems. It is clear that Pol L/Corp Nitikorn’s concerns and pleas for support for junior policemen fell on deaf ears.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has set its sights on police reform. Last week, the junta created a new body, the National Police Policy Commission, to oversee the appointments of high-ranking police officers. The aim is to root out political intervention which aggravates the culture of cronyism, nepotism and corruption.

However, this measure alone is not enough to ensure a clean police force.

At present, the force is divided into two distinct classes — the bosses who graduated from the Police Cadet Academy and junior officers from schools for corporals. The classes operate in an oppressively feudal and closed society where subordinates have no say whatsoever. Due to their low pay, the police tend to get involved in all sorts of underground businesses.

According to a recent study, five to 20% of earnings from gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, human trafficking, trading of contraband arms, and the smuggling of diesel oil and other illegal goods goes to police protection. Such wealth explains why the big bosses do not feel the need to improve the salary and welfare system, and why many junior officers, who do not have connections, suffer terribly.

The country should no longer allow this ailing system to hold the country hostage and result in the deaths of more disillusioned officers. There have been calls to demilitarise and decentralise the police force. But an honest and efficient arm of the law is not possible if low pay, poor welfare, and a lack of unaccountability and meritocracy remain the norm.