Sunday, April 01, 2007

Police reform requires stick as well as carrot

Recently, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) floated the idea to increase the salaries and benefits of police personnel. He also unveiled a new vision and mission for the police force. These initiatives are largely to create a better, more professional police force - one that is, amongst other objectives, more resistant to the taint of corruption.

And it came as no surprise that this salary initiative was hotly debated by all and sundry - whether a pay increase would do the trick to curb corruption. The IGP's logic is that poor salaries make for poor policemen. He believes policemen are FORCED to resort to taking bribes in order to supplement their meagre incomes. In other words, they are corrupt so that they & their dependents have sufficient means to lead normal, otherwise wholesome lives.

I, for one, don't dispute this logic as it is indeed intuitive and reasonable. For a policeman to be able to resist a bribe, the incremental value of that bribe must be minimised versus the value of his legitimate income. This reduces his motivation to take bribes.

However, REDUCING THE UPSIDE of bribery is only half the fight.

It must be complemented by INCREASING THE DOWNSIDE of bribery. This means that the consequences and penalties of accepting bribes must be swift and severe. Otherwise, the "motivation" to accept bribes remains unaffected. In fact, the bribes will now have to be larger (versus his now-higher legitimate income) in order to make it worth his while.

Remember..., NEED is not the biggest motivation for corruption. GREED... is.

To increase the consequences and penalties, 2 things must be in place.

1. The chances of getting caught & punished must be high!
2. The punishment must be severe!

Therefore, sean the man recommends that:

a) A body independent of the police force, reporting directly to Parliament - must be set up to accept complaints from the public, whistle-blowers and witnesses. Remember the IPCMC, anyone?

b) All complaints must be investigated and given due regard. Just as there is no presumption of guilt, the circumstances demand that there can be no presumption of innocence as well.

c) All penalties for corruption must be severe regardless of the level of corruption. For eg. accepting RM50 for a traffic offence or embezzling RM1,000,000 should carry the same penalty. Therefore, there should be only one penalty for any level of corruption. Compulsory dismissal, forfeiture of pension, benefits & employer's portion of EPF and prosecution in a criminal court.

These punishments must be deliberately much more substantial compared to hereto perennial favourites like: "transfers" to another police station or into desk jobs, reprimands, demotions, resignations and retirements.


Then, idealistic simpletons always argue that - IF the public doesn't offer bribes, the police will have none to accept. Voila, corruption problem gone. Their perception is that the public offers bribes as a tool of convenience.

To an extent, that is indeed undoubtedly true. Many bribes are paid to avoid the inconvenience of having to queue up at the police HQ payment counter (no, you can't pay at just any police station) or make a court appearance (if you want to dispute the offence). And the amount of the bribe is usually only a fraction of the official fine or penalty - thereby providing an economic incentive on top of the convenience.

To counter it, the penalties on the public for offering bribes must be toughened significantly.

However, the trouble of paying fines and court appearances are not the only inconveniences that makes the public feel compelled to offer bribes. There is also the inconvenience of being arrested and spending 24 hours in police detention. We need to remember that police powers of arrest are very, very wide. And in being so, vulnerable to abuse by bad cops.

Here is an article in PDRM's website that details out the variety of statutes that a person can be arrested under. The gist of it is that our Criminal Procedures Code and Police Act allow for arrests without warrant for a host of offences. And this article from the Malaysian Bar details out what happens after a person is arrested. All in all, the "inconvenience" amounts to 24 very uncomfortable hours of your life, or more.

Now, I won't pretend to be a lawyer or police officer and know definitively exactly what offences one can be arrested for. But I do understand that it all boils down to "non-seizable" offences which require a warrant for arrest, and "seizable" offences which do not require a warrant. Seizable offences are listed in the First Schedule of the Criminal Procedures Code (which I simply could not find a copy online).

I'm sure seizable offences are very serious crimes and deserve to be arrestable without a warrant. However, the concern is how seemingly minor, non-criminal and obviously non-seizable offenses... can sometimes lead to seizable ones.

Here's a case in point: A car driver who was stopped by the police for excessive tinting on his car windows... was subsequently arrested for "obstructing justice" because he argued with the cops...

And here's a well-circulated story where a young man was arrested after failing a urine test. He was locked up & abused for several days, only to proven innocent by another independent urine test...

These incidents may seem extreme and improbable to many of you, but my personal sense is that they are neither. I've had my share of experiences with police "procedures" from being detained at traffic road blocks, forced off the road by off-duty policemen on their personal motorbikes and as an "illegal spectator" who happened to be walking past a road being used for illegal races. Many of these incidents would have quickly deteriorated from a half hour chat into a night in the lockup, had I been less agreeable in expressing my admiration for our boys in blue.

Added: 6 April 2007 - Link to the Bar Council's Red Book which details your basic rights when stopped, arrested and questioned by police.

The danger is that the some seizable offences are too wide ranging and depend too much on the subjective judgement of the police officers. Yardsticks like 'suspicion' or 'probable cause' and 'obstructing justice' are simply too wide and prone to abuse.

To complicate matters, there are no penalties and consequences for the arresting officer if the arrest is subsequently found to be unjustified. Even if a public complaint is lodged, the police are less than transparent with their investigations, if any were indeed conducted. Has anyone heard of the officers in the nude squat incident being punished? Or the officer who was caught on video beating up a handcuffed protester during the price hike protest?

What then, prevents the bad apples in the police force from abusing these weaknesses in the current laws and procedures and use their discretionary power of arrest to intimidate and extort the public? These discretionary powers must be curbed and strictly guided.

Petty powers invested in men who cannot live on their salaries is an invitation to misuse those powers.

- Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First World.
Therefore, sean the man recommends that:

a) clear comprehensive guidelines for police procedures and applicable statutes must be published with the express objective to increase public awareness and ensuring objectivity.

b) all arrests and confiscation of private property (eg. impounding vehicles) for, and arising from an escalation of - a NON-CRIMINAL offence (eg. how window tinting became obstructing justice), be automatically subject to an independent investigation. The objective of the investigation would be to determine how and why a simple misdemeanour can escalate to become an arrestable seizable offence and whether the abuse of police power occurred.

c) the post-arrest procedures (ref here) must be strictly complied with. Any deficiency to this process must immediately impose an automatic & compulsory penalty / punitive action on the arresting officer, investigating officer, officer in charge and responsible magistrate. This penalty is for failure to follow police procedure, and not related to the original circumstances of the arrest.

It is also interesting to note that the car in the tinted windows example above, was also impounded for "suspected" illegal tinting. The police of course, don't have the equipment to check this. Which brings up the pertinent question why they targetted the car in the first place... knowing full well they couldn't possibly tell how much tinting it had. This case lends itself to the hugely pervasive belief amongst Malaysians that corrupt policemen do in fact, ACTIVELY create situations to entrap the public. Entrap them into thinking that an "offence" might have taken place, and that a hefty fine or detention / confiscation of property (ostensibly for further investigation) is imminent. Unless of course, they pay the "on-the-spot" fine ie. bribe.

Who amongst us does not have an anecdote about off-duty policemen patrolling the streets enforcing traffic laws? I can't recall how many times I've been stopped by policemen for driving a noisy car or an oversize spoiler, when they had neither a decibel meter nor measuring tape handy.

Therefore it is my view that the battle against police corruption needs to be fought on multiple fronts. The salaries of policemen must undoubtedly increase, but only in tandem with higher standards of policing and more checks and balances to restore the public's confidence. This means they must use both the carrot as well as a big, farking stick.


Ed said...

This recent case makes a good test on the PDRM:

Have the PDRM improved enough yet to be brave enough to handle such a case?

seantang said...

Hard to say, Ed.

In my view, the PDRM has to first purge the force of all the excess baggage, moldy furniture and bad cops. Much like what the SPF (Singapore Police Force) and RHKPF (Royal HK Police Force) did in the 70s. They both formed an independent anti-corruption agency (HK's reported straight to the Queen via the Governor and Singapore's to, of course, LKY personally) and they went after each and every corrupt officer.

No exceptions, no compromises and no deals to minimise embarassment, hardship or placate communal sensitivities.

As for Royalty, let me just make this one comment. England has only one royal family with a few princes and NO KING, and look at how much trouble they've caused.

We have 9! Each with their extended families, coterie of hereditary orang-orang besar and their families, thousands of titles given away each year, business and political interests, government pensions & allowances and disproportionate sense of self importance.

No good can come from it, with the possible exception of Perak.