The fifth in my occasional series of “unfortunate appointments” is the first on a non-lawyer; as it happens, the government’s chief law enforcement official. Column No. 440, published on May 2, 2017.
No chief of the Philippine National Police has brought as much disgrace and discredit to the institution he heads as Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, a likeable enough police officer promoted beyond his capacity and competence. His chief claim to fame was his total support for the presidential candidacy of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whom he worked with closely when he was Davao City police chief; the main reason he remains head of the country’s 170,000 police officers is the President’s complete trust in him.
There are at least three reasons why Dela Rosa has seriously damaged the institution he leads. As early as January this year, these reasons were already clear to any observer of the PNP’s performance and indeed to any genuine friend or ally of the President’s. In the aftermath of the scandal over the kidnapping and killing of the retired Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo right inside PNP headquarters (the crime took place in October, but came to light only in January), one of the President’s closest political allies, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, called on Dela Rosa to resign. In the agitated statement Speaker Alvarez released on Jan. 20, after the full scale of the scandal became clear and threatened to bring the President’s so-called war on drugs to a permanent and premature end, the three reasons can already be discerned.
Now, in the wake of the revelations last week about the hidden detention cells inside Manila Police District Station No. 1, and especially after Dela Rosa bombastically offered what Sen. Panfilo Lacson rightly called an “incomprehensible” and “very arrogant” defense of the secret jail, it is time to revisit Alvarez’s position.
In what way has Dela Rosa been detrimental to the long-term interest of the PNP?
First, he has trivialized his office. Dela Rosa is the first PNP chief to allow a police mascot to be made in his likeness; he has not only encouraged the use of the “Bato” mascot, distinguished by its bald head, but also revels in it. This is quite literally a caricature of the enormous responsibility the national police chief must discharge—especially if one were to believe the administration propaganda about the severity of the illegal drugs problem. But the mascot is perfectly representative of Dela Rosa’s approach to law enforcement: cut a high media profile, and then hope for the best.
Alvarez’s cutting comments last January attacked this aspect of Dela Rosa’s time in office: He seems, the Speaker wrote, to be more “interested in having a show biz career and in landing on society pages of newspapers with his being everywhere doing mundane things like singing videoke and watching concerts.” This celebrity-seeking orientation is demoralizing to the ordinary policeman, who must contend with more and more questions about the role of the PNP in the bloody war on drugs, which mostly claims the lives of the poor.
Second, he has politicized the office. Dela Rosa must have been the first PNP chief to respond to questions from senators inquiring into police matters according to their political affiliation; unctuous toward administration allies, passive-aggressive toward opposition lawmakers. This is unprofessional conduct that has consequences down the line. But beyond this, there is also the widely shared perception, discussed by politician and policeman alike, that following his initial burst of popularity he is preparing for a Senate run.
I understand Alvarez’s warning then, that Dela Rosa “buckle down to work or better yet give the job to someone else who is dead serious in leading the PNP,” as a shot across the bow of the PNP chief’s political ambitions.
Third, he has failed to exercise true leadership, and because of his failure, the PNP has created subcultures of impunity. These have allowed the PNP’s own illegal drugs task force to murder the likes of Jee Ick-joo, and the Manila police to host a legalized kidnap-for-ransom business. Dela Rosa’s preferred mode of interaction with the men and women of the PNP, the blustery speech, has no real impact. As Alvarez said last January: “The commission of a heinous crime right [under] his very nose is not only an insult but [also] a clear indication that he has lost the respect of his people.”
It’s a long way from the Leonardo Espinas or Benjamin Magalongs of the PNP to one-dimensional mascots.