Police reform can't be shelved

Frequent corruption disclosures make the need for reform clear, but the public remain disappointed. (File photo)

A recent scandal involving a police officer allegedly taking bribes from a karaoke bar in Nakhon Ratchasima's Pra Thong Kham district is a reminder how the need for reform in the least popular service has not been met.

According to a news report, the allegation emerged earlier this month during a night raid by local administrative officials on a karaoke bar in the northeast province following a complaint the venue was a front for underage prostitution.

The officers found about 12 girls aged between 15-17 on the premises. Seized during the raid was a ledger in which a policeman appeared to have received a monthly kickback payment of 1,000 baht since December 2017. An investigation was launched.

Needless to say, there are many more scandalous cases, involving several branches of police work, that have not been exposed to the media.

Earlier in January this year, an immigration officer who was based in Samut Prakan was accused of taking bribes by allowing foreign travellers to "re-enter" Thailand without them having to actually leave the country. The officer was suspended from duty pending a probe.

But it is not just bribes and under-the-table money that caused public concerns. There are also other issues including negligence of duty and a push for questionable policies including a ban on women from applying for 250 investigation positions in August last year. Such a dubious policy triggered worries among gender advocates that gender-based discrimination will adversely affect investigation in sexual harassment cases.

On top of that are allegations about the rampant position-buying tradition in police force, exposed by heavyweight politicians like Wittaya Kaewparadai. Bribe scandals hit newspaper headlines from time to time.

The latest shenanigans involved six police officers in Nakhon Phanom who attempted to buy a higher position in what appeared to be scam concocted by a taxi driver who faked his Line identity to pose as then Immigration police boss Surachate Hakparn, to wrongfully convince those who hope to get promotions through special means that he could help.

However, the fact that a group of police who were supposed to be good at detecting crime fell victim to the scam raised the question that the position buying process might possibly exist. But Pol Lt Gen Surachate sternly ruled out such malpractice.

But it is unfortunate that despite the dire need for reform, the process has proceeded at a snail's pace. This has undoubtedly led to further public disappointment.

According to several surveys, the police emerge as the career that people most want to see reformed. Complaints about misconduct are plentiful.

When taking power in 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order made police reform one of its top priorities. Gen Prayut, in particular, provided hope to the public that police reform must be achieved in his term.

The prime minister set up two reform panels over the past four years. The first, which was led by Gen Boonsrang Niampradit, a former supreme commander, started its job in July 2017 but only completed paperwork. It was taken over by a new committee under Meechai Ruchupan, a legal guru who led the constitutional drafting committee.

The Meechai panel brought the reform work back to square one amid some criticism. However, last year it completed two related pieces of legislation for the regime, the National Police Bill and the Criminal Penal Code Bill. The bills, according to Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, who is a panel member, have been filed with the cabinet.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, another legal guru, announced that the much-expected reform would be for the new administration to process. This is a disappointment because police reform, which is a crucial and challenging task, could be ideal for when the country has a strong administration such as under the Prayut military regime.

Yet, many observers believe the sluggishness or foot dragging is not a technical matter. In fact, some believe the junta may have skipped over reform to avoid rifts with police.

The proposal made by the Meechai panel may not be perfect but at least it makes a significant start. Bypassing it means a waste of time and effort -- and that crushes public hope.

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