[OPINION] Police brutality is a systemic issue, never an ‘isolated’ case

Text by Dominique Flores

Four years after President Rodrigo Duterte declared his drug war campaign led by his very own armed men, police-related killings have incited outrage in many — but this comes as no surprise.

Of all the people who could deliberately, yet legally, torture and pull the trigger on another person in the name of ‘justice,’ the military and police are the first to come to mind. So when an officer commits a crime, it is unavoidable to link this incident to the culture of violence institutionalized within the state’s armed forces.  

In Duterte’s first year alone, the total number of extrajudicial killings resulted in an estimated 20,000 deaths, according to the June 2020 report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Almost 11 months since the first COVID-19 related death in the Philippines, over 9,000 fatalities have been recorded. 

One would expect that a raging virus will cause more deaths than an armed police force. But in our country, what was supposed to be a more preventable cause of death has led to more than twice the pandemic’s death toll within the same time frame.     

How can we not question, then, the police as a repressive state apparatus when they carry our people to their graves faster than the recent pandemic and calamities combined?    

Now that Filipinos have been desensitized from constant reports of police killings, waking up to the viral video that caught an officer shooting a mother and son in broad daylight served as another eye-opener of how brutal the police can be.  

Not an ‘isolated incident’

Despite the country witnessing the cold-blooded murder of Sonia and Frank Gregorio by a remorseless police officer, many still believe this case to be unrelated to their institution’s violent nature. 

The government has downplayed this murder by describing the suspected officer, Jonel Nuezca, as merely a ‘bad egg’ – just as they have described every other atrocious police officer in their stead.

But we cannot simply call the same men who commit crimes and violate our human rights ‘bad apples’ or ‘bad eggs.’ Their inability to serve and protect should be enough reason to condemn the police force as an institution even if just one of them intentionally disregards their duty.

It only means that their capability of holding people at gunpoint and pulling the trigger in the same heartbeat is influenced by their commanders and fellow armed men who may have done the same.  

Not only are they given weapons with the power to take one’s life, but they are also spared from the punishment of their crimes, with their chief only favoring their lives over those of their victims.

The president, as commander in chief himself, instills the culture of violence and impunity within the state’s forces.

Among many of the appointed high-ranking government officials in Duterte’s Cabinet are retired military men and police chiefs who have led counterinsurgency campaigns and anti-drug operations. 

And not a single moment did the commander in chief flinch when he spouted commands to endanger the lives of ordinary citizens.

On April 1, during one of his late-night speeches, Duterte asserted that he will not hesitate to order the police and military to gun down whoever impedes his forces from fulfilling his command. 

“I will not hesitate. My orders are sa pulis pati military…na pagka ginulo at nagkaroon ng okasyon na lumaban at ang buhay ninyo ay nalagay sa alanganin, shoot them dead,” he said.   

If the Duterte administration genuinely thinks of upholding people’s rights and protecting them from such abuses, he wouldn’t have procured additional funds and unnecessary equipment for the armed forces to take advantage of. Instead, the billions of pesos could have been rechanneled to services in need of immediate financial assistance such as our education sector and COVID-19 response programs. 

The victims

Even amid the pandemic, the military and police continue to assault individuals from different sectors, especially those who stand almost defenseless. Not only are people attacked for being staunch critics of the government, but news outfits are also stifled for exposing the skeletons in their closet. 

As of September 2020, the police have killed over 250 people – majority of them human rights defenders, journalists, farmers, activists and even ordinary citizens. 

With the Anti-Terrorism Law and lockdowns in place, the sworn protectors of the state maximize the people’s limited mobility to serve the interests of the ruling elite. And in their defiled definition of peace, the state’s forces illegally arrest, torture and kill progressive people who urge for the masses’ calls to be heard.

The recent beheading of a Baguio City resident and the shooting of a mother and son in Tarlac City are only some of the hundreds to thousands of lives stolen by state perpetrators.  

In almost every month of the year, military and police forces have been suspected of at least one person’s death.

A few notable cases would be the deaths of human rights activist Zara Alvarez who was shot multiple times, peasant leader and peace consultant Randall “Randy” Echanis who was repeatedly stabbed in his own home at an ungodly hour, and journalist Virgilio Maganes who sustained six gunshot wounds. 

This prevailing culture of impunity is magnified in the case of United States soldier Joseph Scott Pemberton who was given absolute pardon less than six years after murdering a trans woman named Jennifer Laude.

He was not only given an early release, but he was also given special treatment during his confinement at Camp Aguinaldo. On the day Pemberton was deported, only a handful of armed personnel watched over him as if he hadn’t choked someone to death. 

While a political prisoner was arrested in her sleep for false charges, Reina Mae Nasino remains confined in Manila City’s notoriously cramped prison.

Bearing a child in the middle of a pandemic and in an environment that forbade her to raise her daughter in her first few months, Nasino was left to grieve for her child’s death. During the burial, over 40 jail personnel and police officers were deployed to keep watch of Nasino who was yet to be convicted and whose hands were cuffed the entire time. 

(Read: [OPINION] Where the sky meets the sea, an open letter to baby River)

It is clearly revealed that those illegally detained and slain are people committed to defending the masses and fighting for their rights – an apparent threat to the Duterte administration.

How, then, can they not institutionalize violence as a response?  

Abolishing the institutionalized state-sponsored violence

Police brutality is a manifestation of the government’s attempt to preserve the status quo. With armed forces serving as a repressive state apparatus, there is no doubt that the police’s complete motto must be “to serve and protect the ruling class.” 

In calling for the abolition of state-sponsored violence, the first step can only be the ouster of the fascist leader who brought about the first blood. If we desire to attain true justice and peace, the system failing to enforce our law must be completely overhauled.  

In doing so, we must call for defunding the national police and military in order to avoid granting them corrupt privileges such as being reprieved for numerous counts of human rights violations. 

Our health sector and COVID-19 response programs deserve a larger budget than any armed forces, especially at a time when our healthcare workers are at the forefront of our country’s recovery. 

With deaths normalized – be it from police brutality, pandemics or storms – the lives of those who have passed tend to be treated as mere statistics.

But for every single one counted in the death toll’s five-digit figure and considered as an isolated case is a person who had a name, a family and a dream. They were robbed of an opportunity to live a more comfortable life and build a safe future for the generations to come. But for us who can still breathe, a better future could still be pursued. 

The issue of police brutality stems from an authoritarian’s desire to preserve his privilege and power to rule. It is rooted in a corrupt system permeated by the culture of violence, lawlessness and impunity. 

So no, police-related killings are not isolated cases. They are part of a systemic issue that calls for our collective action to rid of the diseased tree that started it all.

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