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Baggage

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - January 2, 2021 - 12:00am

The beastly double murder of the unarmed and defenseless Sonya Gregorio and her son, Frank Anthony Gregorio, is still the abiding image we take to 2021. Despite all the bumps and bruises we endured on the health, economic, political and social fronts, this cold-blooded crime by an officer of the law has caused us tremendous suffering as a people.

The Philippine National Police hierarchy’s knee-jerk response was for the chief of police of Bato, Catanduanes to throw shade by victim blaming, PNP Director-General Debold Sinas’ bizarre warning against taking video footage of police operations and DILG Sec. Eduardo Año, the civilian head of the PNP, minimizing it as an isolated case. The unthinking hemorrhage that spewed from their lips served only to fuel our overriding sentiment of repulsion and outrage.

On my part, I couldn’t get the reminder from Gen. Sinas that the viral cellphone video had still to be presented as evidence. As if he was laying the predicate for the shooter to walk free. He needed to say this in the aftermath of the killing, after half the country had already been shocked by the footage?

Even if crows should turn white. The cellphone videos were taken by minors, 12 and 16 years of age. If the video is not confirmed by them, there are several other ways to prove that it happened. But this is moot. The two are now under police protection and have agreed to authenticate the cellphone video in court.

It’s a consolation that the President stood with the people. His instinctive reaction was to be shocked by what he termed as unfair and brutal. The reactions of high profile former PNP directors-general, now Senators Panfilo Lacson and Ronald de la Rosa, were to “show no mercy” and “impose the death penalty.”

The backfire from the PNP’s initial reaction also occasioned the quick remedial optics of PNP’s assurance to the family of immediate action, the face to face dressing down of the killer cop and the initiation of administrative discipline.

Monopoly of violence. The PNP is the only agency to whom the people have ceded the legitimate use of deadly force. When they overstep their limits, then our consent to their exercise of that prerogative is affected. Hence, the review: (1) did they overstep limits? and (2) if they did, how do we hold them accountable? This legitimate use, within limits of authority and with strict accountability, is most easily monitored and enforced with transparency. If they fail in this review, then it means we are no longer on the same side.

The November SWS survey reveals that only 16 percent of us feel we are not poor. But the fate that befell Sonya and Frank Anthony is not peculiar to station in life. When it comes to cops behaving badly, we are all in the same boat. We are all poor. And it’s not because we do not have wealth. We are poor because we are treated unequally, unfairly, abused and disrespected. As if terror, per se, weren’t bad enough. Now, it’s institutional terror we have to deal with. It has been written that the opposite of poverty is not wealth – it is justice.

Those who thought that the Gregorio double murder would just be another statistic swept under the rug must think again.

Lens don’t lie. Speaking of body cams, there are pros and cons to taking video footage of police operations. The most weighty premise is that it would serve as a check against abuse of authority. At the same time, it functions as insulation for police forces against false accusations. This is a win-win situation.

The downside is the intrusion into privacy and, equally, the prohibitive cost. Surveys abroad, across all demographics, are overwhelmingly favorable to the use of body cams.

Again, the cellphone. Brazil has been experimenting with apps to let cellphone cameras perform the work of the body cam. Whether wielded by the police or by the public, the ubiquity of cellphone cams is a powerful dampener of excessive force. Pre-COVID, the forecast was there would be as many as 82 million smartphone users in the Philippines by end of 2021.

Gen. Sinas spoke of the danger of taking cellphone videos. Ostensibly, he was considering our personal safety and also possible interference with operations and contamination of crime scenes. Of course, the unspoken risk was of retaliation against the filmers. These are valid concerns. But if all police operations were transparent, then these risks are diminished.

Even before the Gregorio massacre in Tarlac, there was this December in Cordillera, the discovery of that headless victim in a ravine. Police Regional Office Cordillera (PROCOR) Regional Director R’win Pagkalinawan vowed to investigate. It turns out that there was a cellphone video from the public that captured the abduction of the victim, at the hands of the PROCOR’s own regional drug enforcement unit. The victim, later that day, turned up dead. The RDEU agents are now under detention.

The capture of these local crimes and, in the US, the case of George Floyd in Minneapolis, are just the latest of several instances of police brutality and misconduct caught on camera. These fortuitous events have revolutionized empowerment of the people.

To those who entertain doubt, make no mistake: there is legal and constitutional basis to capture on video what is happening in front of your eyes in a public setting. Even in the US, more than a majority of states, at the federal appeals court level, recognize this right. The US Supreme Court, however, has yet to pass upon whether the recording of police action and publication of the same is covered by First Amendment freedom of expression.

2021
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