The image is horrific. A wobbling, drunken male later identified as an off-duty police sergeant, staggers down an ally late at night on May 31 to confront a middle-aged woman. After a desultory conversation in Tagalog, he suddenly grabs her by the hair, pulls her to him, then shoots her in the chest. She cries out, then falls down dead. He strolls away casually.
Reportedly, the son of 52-year-old Lilybeth Valdez (above, in her coffin) got into a fistfight a month before with the officer, after which the policeman issued a threat. The shooter, identified as Police Master Sergeant Hensie Zinimpan, has ignited outrage across the Philippines and demands for action. Zinimpan has been arrested and is awaiting trial. The new national police chief, Gen. Guillermo Eleazar – who came into office only three weeks ago – publicly berated and manhandled Zinimpan after his arrest in a video made public by the national police, pulling at the sergeant’s shirt and banging his body against a wall.
Unfortunately, the episode is all too frequent in a country in which the police are pretty much out of control, emboldened in extrajudicial killings – encouraged, critics say, by the violent rhetoric of the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. Last December, another police master sergeant shot a woman and her adult son to death on camera in the northern Luzon province of Tarlac over their use of a boga, an improvised noisemaker made of plastic pipe that celebrants use during the Christmas holidays.
Frequent “shootouts” with “drug dealers” almost certainly have been cold-blooded murders. In 2017, surveillance camera footage caught a terrified 17-year-old boy being dragged into an alley to be shot as he protested he was studying for a high school test. Police said later the youth, Kian delos Santos, had died in a shootout, words belied by the surveillance camera.
The off-camera killings, excused as shootouts with violent criminals, have too often occurred with Duterte’s obvious encouragement. Now in his fifth year in office, he is still pushing the killing of drug users and suppliers without arrest or trial despite the fact that statistics published by Vice President Leni Robredo show his drug war has had little effect on either drug smuggling or drug use.
The difference in the deaths of Lilybeth Valdez and the Tarlac couple is that they took place on somebody’s camera phone. Too often, there are no witnesses in a world where the president of the country has encouraged the police to solve social problems by pulling the trigger. He has encouraged “shooting dead” violators of his curfews in the campaign against the Covid-19 coronavirus, for instance. He has threatened to create “death squads” to kill communist rebels. He has threatened to kill human rights activists critical of his drug war. He has threatened political opponents.
Thus, what has happened has appeared inevitable since Duterte came into office. Giving police the mandate to act as enforcer, judge, jury, and executioner meant people would die simply because individual officers in a macho society with their fingers on the trigger would gun down people they didn’t like, or viewed as blights on society, and excuse the killings by calling them drug pushers – unless the killings, of course, occurred on camera.
According to a January 2019 report by the US-based Carnegie Endowment written by David G Timberman: “Inducing police to engage in de facto shoot-to-kill policies is enormously corrosive of law enforcement, not to mention the rule of law. There is a high chance that the policy will more than ever institutionalize top-level corruption, as only powerful drug traffickers will be able to bribe their way into upper-levels of the Philippine law enforcement system. . . . Moreover, corrupt top-level cops and government officials tasked with such witch-hunts will have the perfect opportunity to direct law enforcement against their drug business rivals as well as political enemies, and themselves become the top drug capos.”
The case shows that police accountability “may only be possible if the crime is caught on camera,” said Carlos Conde, Human Rights Watch’s Philippines representative, in a prepared statement. “These incidents underscore the need for police to wear body cameras with appropriate protocols during operations. The PNP agreed to using body cameras and acquired thousands. But wearing them has not been rolled out because the police claim they still need to develop clear protocols. To prevent the video from being manipulated by the police, it will be necessary to prevent officers from being able to turn the cameras on and off at will, and there need to be rules on providing footage to victims and their families, as well as the public.”
Human Rights Watch is somewhat encouraged by the appointment of Guillermo Eleazar as the new police chief, a well-regarded official who has promised publicly to rid the force of what he called “scallawags” and to implement reforms. Unfortunately, Eleazar retires in just five months. But for instance, he announced that the case of a slain transgender named Norriebi Tria had been “resolved” and that the alleged killers had been arrested, a rare occurrence in crimes against transgenders. As Conde noted, “This is a departure from previous police statements classifying cases as “closed” or “solved” once suspects were merely identified – not even arrested, let alone charged.”
The question is whether Eleazar’s reforms will stick. He was highly regarded by the public in Quezon City, the Manila conurbation suburb where he headed the police prior to his elevation. But he is the sixth police chief in Duterte’s reign and he is expected to retire in five months as the revolving door revolves.
For instance, one of his predecessors, Oscar Albayalde, was forced out as national police chief in 2019 amid allegations that he had protected police officials involved in illegal drug trading in the middle of Duterte’s celebrated drug war. Albvayalde was leading the drug war at the time. That does not speak highly for hopes Eleazar will be succeeded by an officer matching his integrity.