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PHILIPPINES: Poor record keeping by Police subverts court cases

September 6, 2007
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On September 4, a video documentary entitled “Solve or Unsolved?” was produced by the Reporter's Notebook, a public affairs programme of a local television network, GMA. The documentary describes clearly the picture of how poorly the police investigators secure documents and keep records. The police blotters, the note books in which complaints and incident reports record, are left to rot and are dumped inside stockrooms, stored in a completely disorganised manner and in many instances old blotters cannot even be located.

It was revealed in the documentary that in order to request copies of information from police blotters registered even in January this year, one had to return days later to locate the files, which are supposed to be readily available. It should have been accessible as police blotters are public documents. The police are required, as a matter of policy, to forward copies of old police blotters to police headquarters for purposes of follow up and further investigation. Or, send them to the regional or national archives once they are ten years old. The documentary though showed many as old as those written in the early 90s remained stored in police stations.

To really understand how and why cases can hardly progress in the Philippines, this video documentary deserves deep reflection for points of discussion to study how the police function and deal with complaints and criminal cases, even ordinary cases. By deeply scrutinizing their basic practices, we could eventually understand; for instance why complainants are not coming forward particularly on cases of human rights violations? Why cases could not be effectively prosecuted in court? Why cases are dismissed by the court for insufficient evidence or by police neglect? How possible is it for police investigators to testify in court fully knowledgeable about a case in court when documents could not even be located, amongst others?

The state of denial on part of the police that they themselves are responsible for deliberately weakening cases is apparent. Lack of resources and incompetence to perform their duties resulting in the impossibility of complaints or cases to progress is endemic. However, the video rather shows the latter and the lack of accountability as obviously the problem. A police commander interviewed in the documentary refuses even to acknowledge the problem and instead boasts that his policemen are “skilled, well trained and obtained proper training on handling [police] documents”; and insisted that he had no problem at all.

It is a shocking and disappointing reality that this has been a common and endemic practice. Complaints are treated with complete disregard: by letting blotters rot in police stockrooms. Once complaints are made, the police have an obligation to ensure it is investigated effectively. Proper documentation and record keeping is essential particularly in pursuing legal actions for purposes of prosecution of cases. Their obligation does not end but rather commences by registering the complaint.

In the Philippines though, once complaints receive, what the police usually does is to record them but the actions they are taking is either negligible or completely ineffective. This continuing practice of police' negligence and failure to hold them accountable reaffirms the public knowledge of the police incompetence.

Under the existing legal system, the prosecutors and courts heavily depends on the information provided by the police. Prosecutors decide to establish probable cause and should a case be filed in court for trial based on the information filed by the police. The entries in police blotters are also used in court proceedings. Therefore, the success of a case relies heavily on how the police investigates, collects evidence and store them. In many cases, complaints have been rejected or dismissed by the prosecutors due to the negligence by the police. The documents or information they obtain could not stand for prosecution, as a result cases cannot even be filed in court. Nevertheless, the police have had convenient excuse from liability because as a matter of policy they consider cases solve once they are filed with the prosecutor's officer. It explains why there is a hundred percent crime solution rate in most areas in Manila as shown in the video documentary as well.

There is an enormous power given to the police authorities in handling criminal cases. This power enables them to make cases deliberately weak for prosecution, either by their negligent practices or incompetence but they are not held accountable to their acts. For instance, despite the gravity of this concern, there has not been any strong action taken by concerned authorities to inquire. No appropriate actions have so far been taken into this. What is shocking was that this practice has become so common that it has already gained implied approval and tolerance. It has become treated as as common occurrence in police stations. If this practice is allowed to continue it would have enormous consequences to criminal cases; undermines and subverts the prosecution of cases in court; and it is an outright denial of legal remedies to the complainants, as it already have.

It is a fact that excessive court delays had long been endemic as well. The poor documentation and excessive court delays aggravates the condition of a failing system due to its inability to dispense their duties effectively. The police, whose role supposedly is to ensure the case is strong, fails to perform even the rudimentary duties of documentation and storage of documents.

It is not only police blotters and documents which are poorly kept in police stations. On many occasions, material evidence in criminal trials, for instance drug money, is stolen from inside the police stations. For example, in May this year thieves stole drug money inside a police station in Talisay City. Nobody knows who stole it and the possibility to recover the money is slim. The loss of evidence has already undermined the case on trial but, once again, no one has so far been held accountable. Theft inside police stations is common. Theft of evidence reduces the possibility that the case will ever progress in court.

There is a policy regarding the keeping of evidence. In the Department Circular No. 61 regarding New Rules on Inquest, issued by the Department of Justice, Section 18 stipulates clearly the assignment of police custodians in keeping documents. And, the inquest prosecutors should conduct an inventory and keep records for purposes of trial. However, the police and prosecutors routinely ignore this legal requirement. Some police investigators act as custodians, keeping evidences by themselves, or no inventory report is made by the inquest prosecutors. Therefore, the chain of custody does not exist as required and no one takes responsibility of the material evidence.

Their failure to perform basic legal requirement is alarming. The possibility therefore for the Philippine National Police (PNP) to effectively investigate and assist in successfully prosecuting cases in court is negligible, particularly in cases involving the worst human rights violations, yet these are areas they paid no attention to. How could the police resolves cases of worst forms of human rights violations; for instance, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture, amongst others, they could not even perform their basic duties? The police themselves denied possibilities of legal remedies.

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