The Kanagawa Prefectural Police has apparently run amok. One day after nine senior current and former officers were referred to public prosecutors on suspicion of involvement in the coverup of a fellow officer’s drug use, the prefectural police headquarters meekly announced that a current and a former police sergeant had been arrested on charges of attempting to extort money from a fellow officer. Over the past two months, the nation has been treated almost to a never-ending parade of police sins and vices in that prefecture — everything from hazing among fellow officers to police violence, sexual harassment, whoring and shoplifting. What ever happened to our vaunted police system that prided itself for its efficiency in putting criminals to justice and making Japan one of the safest societies in the world?

Kanagawa, of course, is just one of the nation’s 47 prefectures and the squalid affairs that have emerged from this 15,000-member police force hopefully are not illustrative of our entire law-enforcement institution. Of course, we should remember that every barrel contains a few bad apples. What is important is that we have a system where bad apples can be duly exposed and removed before they contaminate the rest. The uncovering of an alarming string of police wrongdoings in Kanagawa means the government and the National Police Agency must act promptly to overhaul the nation’s police management system.

One obvious lesson from the systematic coverup and destruction of evidence of drug use by a police assistant inspector — a case that involved the head of the prefectural police — is that the police can no longer be entrusted to police themselves without an independent system of check and balance. The scandal shows that as an institution the police force is eager to do everything to protect its own. The rogue assistant inspector, who triggered the whole sordid affair in December 1996, told colleagues that he had been injected with amphetamines by his girlfriend, making the confession on the very day the Kanagawa police was to launch a prefectural antidrug abuse campaign.

Instead of arresting the police inspector as it would have done if the suspect had simply been your average John Doe, the Kanagawa police brass decided that the paramount interest was not to uphold the law but to protect the public image of the police force. There was neither dissent nor whistle-blowing once Mr. Motoo Watanabe, the former prefectural police chief and the most senior police official involved in the coverup, made the decision to sweep the dirt under the rug.

That sort of thing, however, is not supposed to happen; at least that is what the framers of Japan’s elitist administrative system want us to believe. Mr. Watanabe, who later went on to become head of the National Police Academy, was one of the 520 or so “elite” police bureaucrats employed by the NPA. Put on the fast track of promotion, these “elite” officers stand head and shoulder above the rank-and-file police officers hired by prefectural police and see to it that prefectural police departments maintain high standards of police work. However, that image, as this coverup scandal has shown, is only a myth: Police integrity can be compromised at the expediency of an ill-perceived public image.

Japan’s police system is supposed to have a second line of defense against police malfeasance: the police inspectorate that is set up at each prefectural police force. Sadly, the Kanagawa scandal has also shown that this self-policing system can equally be subject to compromise if a scandal is big enough to affect the self-made police “image.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Kanagawa scandal, the NPA announced that it had set up a high-level inspectorate task force to conduct random inspections of prefectural police forces in order to prevent dereliction of duty. It also announced plans to organize special management seminars for senior police officers in order to sharpen their management skills. In addition, the NPA has sent directives to the prefectural police nationwide, ordering them to strengthen the role of the local public-safety commissions, which are supposed to oversee local police work. While all these steps are welcome, the government must create, by the strength of law, an independent system to watch over police work. Any government measure to root out police malfeasance must not be a one-shot affair, something to be readily forgotten once the scandal fades from public memory. Police integrity is too important a national asset to be compromised by halfhearted half-measures.

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