How to boost confidence in the police

Ask Thais which state agency needs to undergo reforms first, and most would have no hesitation in suggesting the police service. This is because policing affects people's everyday lives while the police force has long been criticised for its inefficiency, influence peddling and corruption.

According to a survey in 2014 by Prof Pasuk Phongpaichit and her team at Chulalongkorn University, the police are among the top three public services associated with bribery, along with the Land Department and the Customs Department. Opaque investigations of several landmark criminal cases that involved politically powerful figures in the past have also served to erode people's trust in the Royal Thai Police (RTP).

Currently, the RTP has approximately 210,700 officers, accounting for 17% of the total number of civil servants (excluding the military and the employees of the state-owned enterprises). This huge organisation has undergone two restructurings during the past 12 years.

The first is the setting-up of the National Police Policy Commission (NPPC) in 2004. It was primarily aimed at separating the policy oversight from the administrative functions of the Police Service Commission (PSC) which is in charge of personnel management. Both are chaired by the prime minister.

What deserves attention is that the two commissions included external members from different fields such as criminology and law. There are four external officers in the 11-member NPPC, and 11 such officers in the 22-member PSC.

Although the NPPC is in charge of appointing the police commissioner general, there has been frequent criticism about political interference in the process.

The second restructuring took place in July 2014 under the current government which saw a reduction in the number of members of the two commissions, particularly the external members. The reduction was based on dubious claims that it would create more efficiency in police management. As a result, both the NPPC and the PSC have only two external members each. This casts doubt on whether the current government would decentralise police management.

However, it seems that the government is concerned more about the structure of the management of the police service and much less about the efficiency, transparency and accountability of police work.

Under the current structure, there are two oversight agencies -- the Office of the Inspector-General and the Board tasked with overseeing and following-up on police administration, which are composed of committees at three levels: the city of Bangkok, provinces and districts. 

The first organisation is in charge of compliance of the police's code of ethics. However, as part of the RTP, it is hard for the average citizen to believe that it is either structurally or financially independent since the public has no access to information concerning its performance.

The second organisation was created by the 1997 Constitution, which sought to promote the role of public participation in the oversight of the state's administration. The boards comprise non-police members as stipulated by law. In Bangkok, it is composed of at least the governor of the city, some specialists in good governance, economics and social issues.

The main function of these committees is handling public complaints about misconduct among police officers. These committees, however, do not have the statutory power to take action to correct alleged misconduct. They can only report to the NPPC.

Also, although the idea of public engagement in national safety affairs is laudable, the fact that these outsiders are still appointed by the chairman of the board, who is a police officer (the police commissioner general in the case of Bangkok), the degree of independence is limited.

Considering the current direction of reforms, it is still unclear when this issue will be addressed.

According to the draft charter published last month, Section 268 emphasises reform of human resource management, more precisely to ensure adequate salaries and a merit system which must be achieved within one year after it comes into effect.

In addition, the government's decision to use Section 44 of the interim constitution to dissolve the "inquiry officer's position" early this month brings more questions about reform as some have criticised it for allowing the police to have both the authority to arrest and conduct inquiries at the expense of a checks-and-balances mechanism.

While the reform plan remains under review waiting for the government to reveal concrete solutions to corruption problems in the police force, it will be a good opportunity for citizens to make a proposition.

Putting aside human-resource reform, there are two key issues that the government needs to reconsider in police reform. First, the RTP needs a truly independent oversight body composed of more representatives from human rights agencies and civil society organisations. These representative should be nominated and selected by committees, not dominated by police officers.

In fact, this idea of an independent oversight body had been introduced in 2007 during the interim Surayud Chulanont government that was installed by the 2006 coup makers. The then-government proposed a bill on establishing an "Independent Police Complaints Commission", outside the RTP, which would be under the direction of the Secretary of the Public Service Commission, the pillar of the government's human resources management. But the bill was eventually dropped following the dissolution of the National Legislative Assembly in December 2007. However, this proposal may be revisited.

Moreover, the statistics and results of complaints and investigations on police misconduct as well as the recommendation to improve the police service must be disclosed publicly. The aim is to restore public confidence. This is because, as state officers, the police must be accountable to the public, not only their supervisors.

Second, the separation and decentralisation of authority can be the key solution to tackling corruption. Thus, reducing the number of external members on the police commissions and giving the inquiry and investigation duties to the same officers may do more harm than good.


Tippatrai Saelawong is a senior researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Thanapat Chatinakrob is a researcher at TDRI. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

About the author

Writer: Tippatrai Saelawong & Thanapat Chatinakrob