When policemen look the other way



Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

I had previously written about the case of Romalyn Gapos,  a business finance student at the University of Makati (UMAK), who was arrested with her family following an altercation with an off-duty police officer.

The column did not include details of how the police conducted themselves in an unprofessional manner, disregarding established procedures intended to protect the rights of the accused. Roma’s plight  is a clear example of a police officer abusing his authority and depriving a family of their rights all out of pettiness. But this was not the work of one misguided and power-tripping police officer. It involved other policemen as well and demonstrated how the “bata-bata” system works against the interest of justice.

Roma and her family’s ordeal started when they encountered the off-duty police officer and his wife. Roma’s family made their living as sidewalk vendors in Manila, calling the spot where they sell their wares as their home. For no apparent reason, the police officer started kicking the wares being sold by Roma and her sister. They confronted the police officer, and during the argument, the police officer grabbed Roma’s sister by the hair. Roma screamed for help. Several onlookers saw the commotion and came to their aid. When policemen from a nearby precinct arrived, the off-duty cop accused Roma and her sister of assaulting him. He branded them as drug addicts and troublemakers. Roma’s school ID card, which she showed to the cops, was confiscated. Their earnings for the day and other personal items disappeared. They were taken to the nearest precinct and detained.

What breach of procedure did the police commit? For one, the off-duty police officer — who was the principal complainant — wrote his own affidavit, when procedure requires that it be done in the presence of a police officer in a question-and-answer format.

More appalling was the blatant disregard for the rights of the accused. Roma’s stepfather and half-brother who came to visit were also arrested and detained — even if they were not present when the incident happened — on the say-so of the off-duty police officer. Without any preliminary investigation, the inquest fiscal filed a case of frustrated murder. Roma and her kin were transferred hastily from the precinct to the City Jail, where they spent months in an overcrowded cell. Conditions at the jail facility can only be described as appalling. In just a few weeks, Roma had grown thin and pale. Her hair was infested with lice. Roma and her kin’s burdens were eased if only a bit by the generosity of kind-hearted individuals who provided them with food and other necessities.

When I cross-examined one of the policemen who responded to the commotion, he gave an account of the incident totally different from what he narrated in his signed report. He would later admit in open court that some of the incidents he mentioned in his report did not happen.

That policeman would approach me after the hearing. He introduced himself as a fraternity brother and wanted to shake my hand but I slapped it back, telling him in no uncertain terms that he does not deserve to be a brother and a policeman. Because of his lies, I said, an innocent young woman and her family are languishing behind bars. He meekly replied that he could not do anything because the complainant was a superior officer.

On March 5, 2019, Judge Thelma Bunyi Medina ordered the release of Roma and her kin after the prosecution told the court that it could not establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. By then, Roma and her kin had been in jail for over seven months.

Injustice happens when policemen look the other way and ignore the misdeeds of fellow policemen. But this is not an isolated case. Since I started my law career, I have frequently encountered cases of persons detained unjustly on the basis of false testimonies, falsified documents, and planted evidence. In fact, these were quite common during martial law when I represented political detainees who were labeled “subversives” by the authorities.

But while we may shake our heads at the depths to which some policemen have sunk — bringing with them the reputation of the entire police force — I remain hopeful in the infinite range of possibilities for the police force to do good to their organization, their uniform, and the nation. The only way to save the PNP’s image is to begin a sincere effort to reform it from within, starting with inculcating in every policeman a deep respect for human dignity. Will the next PNP chief preside over such a reform?