What to Do When Cops Become the Criminals?

So far this year, police officials have been convicted of murders. They have flouted court summonses, and illegally detained children as young as 12. One ex-military police officer was charged with killing two municipal police officers during a robbery; another former commune officer was sentenced to 12 years for murdering two in a brawl. Cops beat protesters bloody; they rampaged; they shot their guns drunkenly.

Welcome to just another year on the force.

Crimes like these are nothing new, say human rights workers and analysts. Instead, they are part of a pervasive and endemic problem that the Ministry of In­terior appears unable or unwilling to crack down on, even as it af­fects its ability to gain public confidence and fight crime at large in Cambodia.

“It’s been going on for years. There have not been measures taken,” said longtime political observer Lao Mong Hay.

“So far, there have been sort of ad hoc measures. They deal with it case by case…. [Sometimes] they make a sacrifice of certain officials to divert public opinion,” but there has been no large-scale reform of the force, he said.

Without a far-reaching policy intended to thwart criminality with­in the ranks of law enforcement officers, little will change, Mr Mong Hay said.

“There should be oversight bodies and they should report to the public. So far, there are inspection departments within each ministry, but they aren’t working as expected,” he said.

Little is known about these bodies.

A captain at the Interior Ministry’s disciplinary committee would only discuss his work on condition of anonymity. He said disciplinary committees exist throughout the country and at every level, but he would not reveal the total number of officers or frequency of cases they investigate.

“If an undisciplined police officer does something wrong, they are sent to this department for punishing. But if they commit a serious crime, they are automatically fired or demoted and sent to the court,” he explained.

Those who are found guilty of small infractions, he continued, are typically “educated” and permitted to return to their units without further punishment. Unless a case is sent to court, the police disciplinary committee erects a wall of silence around its inner workings.

“It’s the rule of the disciplinary committee,” he explained. “This news is never revealed for the public, not even the police newspaper.”

That instinct to hide cases from public view, however, may be throwing a wrench into efforts to lessen the problem and clear criminality out of the police force.

“By taking strong actions, it builds the trust of the people. Whenever it happens, there needs to be advertising of the strong disciplinary actions that were taken against the wrongdoing,” independent analyst Chea Vannath said.

“[The process] needs to be more transparent and accountable,” she added.

Compounding the problem, say many, is a tendency to invoke a ‘bad apple’ defense in order to avoid dealing with the underlying issues at play in the force.

Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak yesterday said that just a small fraction of officers have been implicated in crimes.

“We have more than 50,000 police officers in the whole country. When they commit crimes, they are not police, they are failing in their duty,” he said. He likened the situation to that of monks who defrock those found to have behaved improperly.

“They are not the monk, then. They are not someone to be respected.”

Mr Sopheak insisted that criminal officers have not eroded public confidence in the least.

“People still need the police,” he said. “So far, people are still confident in the duty of police officers.”

Some, however, take a less rosy view of the situation, saying that when police and military police officers commit crimes they erode public trust, creating a populace that refuses to turn to the police for help unless they are wealthy or well-connected.

“The lack of trust among people regarding the police can lead to societal disability,” SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua said.

“I see it at the village level: They cannot trust the police, the system is totally rotten. If they have a conflict, only those who have power and money go to the police…. Those who don’t have money know justice won’t be served.”

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)

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