Fri, 30 May 2003

Trigger-happy officers

The National Police are again under fire after the most recent fatal shooting incident that claimed the lives of a 12-year-old girl and a toddler in West Jakarta early this week.

Seven police officers have been questioned over the shootings that killed bystanders Ina Surtianah and Eli -- a three-and-a- half-year-old girl -- when officers were chasing alleged drug dealers in the area.

Jakarta Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Prasetyo has said that the shootings were accidental. Nevertheless, legal proceedings will go ahead. Unfortunately, however, Prasetyo claimed that the shooting was "in accordance with normal practice" but that there had been a "procedural failure".

The death of Ina Surtianah and Eli in West Jakarta reminds us of the fatal shooting by First Insp. Bambang Suryanata, head of North Cirebon Police, West Java, of a motorist early this month. Anjani, a 29-year-old driver was shot in the head by Bambang when the victim tried to escape the officer after his bus hit Bambang's car on the Jakarta-Cikampek freeway.

Bambang, the trigger-happy officer in question, was cleared of all charges and has since returned to work, albeit in a new job, at the Cirebon Police Station. Cirebon Police chief Adj. Sr. Com. Musyafak said that Bambang's action was in accordance with "standard procedures". Even so, the shooting triggered the ire of local residents.

To go back a little further, in March of last year, a 14-year- old girl was hit in the mouth by a stray bullet when a policeman opened fire to stop a fierce brawl in Ciracas, East Jakarta. It is not clear if the Jakarta Police has done anything by way of showing its accountability for that incident. Jakarta Police chief Insp. Gen. Makbul Padmanagara, however, has said that it would take time to investigate the case. We see in these three incidents a very clear case of police officers tending to look after their own in times of trouble.

Without providing a logical and acceptable explanation to the public of what the phrase means, it is hard to accept Prasetyo's statement that the death of Ina and Eli was due to "a procedural error". After all, as an ordinary human being and family man Prasetyo should be mortified by the death of the two innocent girls.

We can understand that none of those officers had actually intended to kill anyone during their pursuit of criminals. But after watching reports on the police's "achievements" aired on private television stations every day, it is hard to erase the impression that almost all officers prefer to use their guns to using their hands or heads in pursuing criminals. We frequently see, on television, police officers opening fire while chasing criminals, even in crowded residential neighborhoods and public places. The scenes reflect a lack of professionalism among police officers.

In such a situation, the possibility of stray bullets taking victims among innocent bystanders is very real. The question is whether and how the police can be held responsible in such cases of accidental deaths by shooting? The use of firearms must be a last recourse for a police officer to stop a criminal resisting arrest. This should be a standard procedure for all police officers worldwide. According to Articles 4 and 5 of Law No. 2/2002 on the National Police, the police are empowered to play a leading role in maintaining public security and order, upholding and enforcing the law, and safeguarding and protecting the people while respecting human rights.

Now that several fatal incidents due to stray bullets have occurred and have claimed, at least, three lives, the question is what the police have done to protect the public and respect human rights. Something must obviously be done by the National Police chief to review what they believe is the most appropriate model for enhancing professionalism among officers. Also, the House of Representatives should have summoned the National Police and Jakarta Police chiefs to demand accountability for the fatal shooting incidents. And what of the victims' families? The promised "compensation" offered by the police, whatever the amount, cannot bring back the life of a loved one.

Apparently, the five-year-old reformasi drive has yet to succeed in pushing the police to adjust to reform, especially after their separation from the Indonesian Military. There is no other choice for the police as a state institution but to improve their professionalism. This can be done by, among other things, respecting people's right to protection. The police must also have the courage to do some honest introspection and demonstrate their accountability for their actions.

Only in this way will the police succeed in evolving an effective mechanism for built-in control in order to minimize the abuse of power by police personnel and thereby gain the public's trust and respect -- which is, when all is said and done, the most effective weapon the police force can hope to hold in its fight against crime.