Dealing with Criminal (In)Justice in the Philippines

crime photoThe Philippine National Police is optimizing the use of technology in Crime Prevention and Crime Solution by launching the Bantay Krimen Mobile App at National Headquarters, Camp Crame. Photo from the Philippine National Police website.

Central American countries have a term for repressive policing strategies on crime: “Mano Dura” (Iron Fist). The tough rhetoric on crime policy in a region marked by high homicide rates and gang violence has propelled candidates into the presidencies of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Perhaps we are heading in that direction too.

In the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Duterte-Cayetano tandem has brought the crime problem front and center in the 2016 national elections. Their law and order platform aims to eliminate criminality within three to six months. Presidential debates have talked about the reintroduction of death penalty and the power of the police to ‘shoot to kill’ criminals who resist enforcement officers.

The heavy-handed approach to law enforcement has been presented as a necessary precondition for national development. The amount of faith poured into this platform is astonishing, to say the least: Duterte and Cayetano have promised to increase the salaries of policemen to a range of 75,000 to 100,000 pesos each- a radical increase from a Police Officer I’s pay grade of 14, 834 pesos monthly.

In a country where the law is of little significance, whether to the corrupt politician who plunders the public coffers or to the petty car driver who can’t even follow traffic lights, it appears that getting tough on crime is an idea whose time has come.

The terms of the debate

Discussions on more authoritative solutions to the crime problem have to be understood within the climate of heightened collective fear could play a crucial role in short-run policy preferences. Indeed, crimes are higher than official statistics suggest. Government data rests on complaints to the police which is underestimated given that not all victims of crimes go to make reports in police stations.

In any case, another way to measure crime levels is through “victimization surveys” or public opinion polls which are administered annually by asking households if they were victimized by crimes to account for unreported criminal activities. Locally, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) has asked on a per-household basis annually since 1989 if families experienced (A) property crimes (robbery, break-in, carnap) and (B) physical violence (such as physical assault) and if they (c) fear that they will be a victim of certain types of crimes in the near future.

The graph below plots the yearly aggregate level (“any crime”) and reflects that 7.5% of households (out of the total 22 million household) in 2014 were victimized by a crime six months before the survey. Note that for this year the number of reported crimes was 1,161,188 according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Despite the fact that the SWS victimization survey records only “common crimes” and even under the assumption that each household experienced only one crime for 2014, the victimization survey would give us a total of 1.65 million crime incidences. This means that more than ⅓ of crimes are not reflected in government statistics.

crime 1

Looking at a longer time horizon, crime levels today are lower than other periods of Philippine history as shown in the chart below wherein disaggregated property crimes are experienced, at most, by 5% of all households:

crime 2

The general decline in the estimates of the number of crimes per household is particularly interesting when compared to the dramatic decline in net public satisfaction with how the Aquino administration has handled the crime problem over the course of his administration as shown below. Hence security, as a state of mind, may not necessarily follow objective improvements in crime statistics as evidenced in the graph below:

crime 3

Moreover, an important component of the victimization survey by SWS is the segment which measures the fear of crime. The figure below shows us that the Aquino administration would end its term with levels of fear about certain crimes which are 10% higher than the levels of fear when he assumed office. Although there are fluctuations within each term, all Post-EDSA presidents left office with roughly the same level of public fear for crimes as when they took office. Heightened public paranoia may incentivize curtailment of freedoms for public security as (i) politicians need to capture this market of voters by adjusting to their preferences and (ii) there may be less opposition to law enforcement measures.

crime 4

Campaigns which rest on the problem of crime are dangerous because they thrive in the amplification of the sense of insecurity among the people. Institutions like the media may have also aggravated public insecurity given financial incentives to rake in corporate profit by over reporting dramatic, violent crimes.

Bounded Innovation

It is at this critical juncture that we must be vigilant. The Philippine criminal justice system is composed of five pillars: (i) law enforcement, (ii) prosecution, (iii) the courts, (iv) the corrections system, and (v) the community. The clarion call for public safety at the expense of procedural fairness, for instance, has led to vitriolic attacks against the necessity for a Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and how the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) perpetuates public powerlessness against juvenile delinquents.

In dealing with criminal justice, have we been as eager to talk about the speed of disposition of cases, the integrity of the courts against bribes, or the inhumane situation inside our jails and prisons?

The sudden public willingness to fund the police is intriguing. In 2013, 69% of Filipinos believed that our policemen are highly corrupt according to the Global Corruption Barometer of Transparency International. For that year, the Philippine National Police was the most distrusted agency in the country. This is a country where 21 policemen are accused to be complicit in the massacre of 57 victims in the Maguindanao Massacre, where major operational blunders like Mamasapano make national headlines, and where drunk policemen annually fire bullets in the air during New Year’s Eve.

Any political reform is “bounded” in the sense that new types of policies would have to make use of the institutional materials at hand. The Philippine National Police will not change overnight and any president, regardless of how well intentioned, will not be able to micromanage officers all the time. Innovation is bounded because (i) we have not talked about addressing the other pillars of the criminal justice system and (ii) we are yet to examine the quality of the very institutions we seek to empower. Should we strengthen the police? Let us take in mind Alma Moreno’s now proverbial line “yes, with reservations”.


A brand of politics which capitalizes on a “just do it” mantra that downplays public deliberation and participation may, like Goethe’s sorcerer's apprentice, unleash spells it knows not how to control. There are several things we have to keep in mind.

First, under the Department of the Interior and Local Government Act of 1990, city and municipal mayors have operational supervision over the Philippine National Police (PNP) in their localities. Especially in the peripheries, segments of the police personnel function as commissars of ruling dynasts. The battle lines for genuine change in law enforcement extend to the local level, especially for a country where state institutions are captured by elites. Even if a reform-oriented president is elected in 2016, the entrenchment of the affluent and the corrupt at the local level would ensure the institutional subordination of the police to special interests. Granting more discretion to the police in the context of a society that increasingly justifies brutal suppression may be provide an expansion of social control methods on the part of local elites who command uniformed officers.

Second, it appears from surveys that we do not trust our policemen. Whenever we talk of empowering the state to make war on criminals with only broad philosophies like “criminals deserve to die”, we license the same organization we persistently rate as one of the most corrupt agencies in the government. Throwing money at the problem, namely increasing the salary of uniformed officers, is not enough. Noticeably absent from discussions are mechanisms of institutionalized accountability to prevent injustice on the part of state agents like torture and abuse of authority.

For instance, the National Peace and Order Council which coordinates crime policies remains an enclave of government officials. Representation of ordinary citizens is nominally better at the provincial, city, and municipal councils, however, local chief executives, have the discretion to appoint other members. Although deliberative bodies are good in theory, we have to be critical on whether or not they increase representation and combat unilateralism by mayors and governors.

We should also strive to improve the People’s Law Enforcement Board (PLEB), which is a civilian review board that hears complaints about the police. A population which hopes to establish an effective police force must also make one that is “limited” in the sense that personnel respect rights of citizens and where, in cases they do not, can be made accountable to civilian authority.

Third, the resurgence of authoritarian nostalgia in the minds of our people obscures some of the policy innovations we have made on policing the country. Community-based policing is a strategy already used in many local government units in the Philippines, especially under the “Barangay Ronda System”. This approach to policing emphasizes the use of civilian volunteers in conjunction with police officers to perform minor law enforcement duties in a locality and the formation of crime prevention plans at the lowest possible level.

Top-down approaches to crime policy formulation may not be as responsive to criminality. Quezon City, for instance, has implemented a Citizen's’ Arrest ordinance and constructed Citizen’s Posts which are visible along Commonwealth Avenue. Although not perfect, these are less costly to maintain because they can tap on cause-oriented groups to supplement police forces. Encouraging the community’s role in co-producing security together with the police (i) increases vertical accountability to a clear constituency and (ii) ensures representation by groups and individuals in drafting policies which would affect them the most.

Finally, although it is possible to expand the budget for the other pillars of the criminal justice system, the policy discourse in its current form seems obsessed only with the Philippine National Police. The technocratic appeal of leaving crime policy to police chiefs, the president, and several experts is dangerous especially because it fosters a culture of uncritical support for armed personnel. If we do not enhance bureaucratic capacities of prosecutorial agencies for the public officials like the Office of the Ombudsman or prevent money from interfering with the disposition of cases, then a war on crime would do little to correct the injustices in our justice system.

A holistic approach to the crime policy would recognize the culpability of society in producing poverty that predisposes individuals to commit common crimes. We have to recognize as well the violence in “white collar” crimes such as sponsoring inhumane working conditions, the destruction of the country’s natural resources, and dangers of unfettered financial markets. These are the types of crimes done by the few wherein the costs are borne by all regarding public spending on healthcare, environmental restoration, and bailouts. It would take regulatory agencies, far more than the police, to protect us from these crimes that have equal, if not greater, social, moral, and economic costs to national development.

Justin Keith Baquisal is a student of University of the Philippines Diliman, taking up studies at the Department of Political Science.

Social Weather Stations. Fourth Quarter 2015 Social Weather Survey: Net satisfaction with National Administration at "Good" +39.
Social Weather Stations. Fourth Quarter 2014 Social Weather Survey: 6.2% of families lose property, 0.7% suffer physical violence, in the past six months.