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Public trust in the integrity of the nation’s police forces, the Kanagawa prefectural police in particular, was severely tested in recent weeks as revelations followed, in quick succession, of a series of major scandals embroiling its officers. The National Public Safety Commission and the National Police Agency were not quick enough in reprimanding the three senior Kanagawa po
lice officials involved in repeated attempts to cover up the scandals. It is still too early to tell whether the steps taken can succeed in repairing the damage. While their reputations un
doubtedly have suffered, their official punishment amounts to no more than one-month pay cuts.

The commission and the NPA apparently had intended to wait to take any disciplinary action until a “complete picture” was available of the incidents for which the media and the public were criticizing Mr. Takeo Miyama, the Kanagawa prefectural police chief, Mr. Eiji Nakabayashi, head of the police affairs department there, and Mr. Kazuo Morisada, head of the police inspector’s office. That was a mistake, as the mounting public outcry over the Kanagawa officials’ repeated release of misleading and even untrue information finally made clear.

The main concern of the senior officials appears to have been that release of the facts would have harmed the Kanagawa prefectural police “immeasurably.” That is the reason they routinely met to decide in advance exactly what to say at news conferences to media representatives attempting to get to the bottom of the scandals. But this only led to the making of repeated “corrections” of and revisions to previous statements as the coverups unraveled and the serious nature of the incidents became obvious. The reckless disregard for the truth displayed by Mr. Miyama in his news conference appearances betrayed arrogant contempt for the very public the nation’s police officers are charged with serving.

Of course, the incidents at the heart of the scandals received wide media coverage. It is right that they should: In one case, for example, an officer used apparently compromising photographic negatives, which had been confiscated in an investigation into a car-theft ring, to extort money and sexual favors from a female university student. Another case involved physical abuse of new recruits during excessive hazing by squad officers, including the use of handcuffs, the pointing of a loaded pistol at the temple of the same man, and the burning of the pubic hair and other body hair of four of the subordinates in the name of “training.” The squad leader was allegedly drunk at the time.

There is reason to question whether the Kanagawa police are yet sufficiently aware of the danger they pose to others as well as themselves as the result of excessive drinking. The third scandal engulfing the prefectural police force involves assaults by a drunken off-duty assistant police inspector one year ago on two train conductors after he boarded a JR Tokaido Line train at Kawasaki Station. The conductors were correctly doing their job in requesting extra payment from him for riding in a premium-seating “green car” and paid for their diligence by being physically attacked. Despite the injuries suffered by one of the conductors, the officer in question was only officially reprimanded this month.

Perhaps it would be wrong to say that Mr. Miyama and his fellow senior officers failed to treat these incidents with the gravity they deserve. It might be closer to the truth to say that their first priority was to protect the reputation of their department and its members. That would account for the explanation, for example, that no criminal charges were filed against the officer who made the extortion attempt because the university student suffered no “actual injury other than fear.” If that represents the official opinion of the Kanagawa police chief, it is contemptible.

Only as knowledge of these scandals spread this month was the public informed that two officers had been secretly dismissed from the Kanagawa police force, one in 1997 and one last year, for allegedly molesting a woman on a train and for shoplifting respectively. To be sure, police officers elsewhere are also sometimes guilty of reprehensible behavior — the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department dismissed two officers earlier this year for molesting young women. The coverups in Kanagawa, however, suggest an ongoing pattern of misbehavior indicative of a breakdown in disciplinary supervision. It is not certain that token salary cuts will correct that situation, or restore the public’s trust.

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