First published in Blogwatch
Certainly, the police got many things wrong during Monday’s bloody hostage-taking at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila. It would be remiss, however, to simply cite the lack of equipment and training for the major blunder, as what foreign security experts, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the police are saying in chorus. The problem actually runs deep at the institutional level: local police forces are trained and oriented to merely hunt and kill perceived enemies of the state, not to save innocent lives.
This underlying question should be asked, since there is a huge difference between the two basic tasks mentioned. The Philippine National Police’s (PNP) slogan “To Serve and Protect” painted in their headquarters now paradoxically questions their orientation and preparedness to actually do so. Does the PNP exist to serve and protect the people? Or is it there to merely serve and protect the powerful few?
The PNP, which has been around for 19 years, actually has the necessary equipment in handling the hostage crisis. Every year, it has been showcasing its firepower at anniversary rites (it even boasted a new V-150 Commando tank this year). It has around 4,000 elite Special Action Force (SAF) units, who are armed with high-powered assault rifles, submachine guns and sniper rifles, aside from its Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit.
PNP SAF members, who also train SWAT members, actually received training from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), an advanced counter-terror tactical team of the FBI. SAF members in turn conduct related training such as airborne forces training and military diving for other policemen.
All these trainings and special weapons, however, are not for the public’s safety at the end of the day, contrary to the clichés from police chiefs. At the core of the doctrine of the PNP is the emphasis on the protection of the real bosses – the wealthy few in Philippine society – from perceived “enemies of the state” like terrorists, communists and even activists. That is why the best of PNP’s elite force members are recruited to the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and why the SAF is mostly deployed in rural areas. This also explains why the police have been spending a lot of time conducting counter-terror drills, assisting the military for counter-insurgency operations and staging overkill preparations every time a huge street protest is anticipated.
It comes as no surprise why the PNP failed to prevent gung-ho bystanders from flocking towards the crime scene even as they have always succeeded in barring protesters from even touching the Mendiola bridge or from getting closer to Batasan every time the President delivers the State of the Nation Address. Or why the police did not secure bystanders from Rolando Mendoza’s shots and why it opened fire at protesting farmers in Mendiola in 1986 which led to the infamous Mendiola massacre. Or why it forgot to enforce police-media relations (as stated in their manual) during such incidents even as they do not fail in preventing reporters from covering their foul and abusive operations.
They are never incompetent on this note. In fact, many among their ranks are promoted every year by the President not for saving lives but for successfully hunting down the “enemies” or commanding dispersals. Indeed, according them the title “incompetent” in the aftermath of the hostage crisis poses the danger of entitling them to more brute force to be used against ordinary citizens.
DILG chief Jesse Robredo’s lame admission that the police lack the “proper equipment and appropriate skills and training” to handle hostage situations raises more questions than answers. What then, is the proper equipment for a hostage crisis? Do we need laser rifles from Star Wars, rocket launchers or robots? Do the police need training on flying, galloping or Wolverine-style assault? Perhaps Mr. Robredo should first look closely at the basic orientation of the PNP and its actual capabilities.
The same goes for foreign security experts who were quick to point out the lack in equipment and training of the PNP. Such observations are suspect of convincing the national government to buy more ammunitions and modern equipment and weapons from the US and UK (coincidently, the budget hearings will start in the coming months).
Security analyst Charles Shoebridge said in a BBC report that the police officers who handled the bus siege showed great courage but they were not properly trained or equipped for the task. I think it’s the other way around – they have the necessary training and equipment for the job but they do not have the heart to risk their lives in saving civilians.
Manila Police District director Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay’s decision to go on leave and the firing of four SWAT members who were involved in Monday’s operations do not fix the basic problem of the PNP nor reverse the international embarrassment that the police have caused. For as long as the police act as pawns of the state and not as defenders of the people, the same hostage-taking can happen to anyone of us. Outrageous as it may sound, we remain hostages to our own security forces. And a dog-like grin from President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino simply won’t help.