It is a sad commentary on the times when the nation’s police forces, which must rely on the public’s trust to be effective, find themselves under a cloud of suspicion over repeated incidents of questionable, even criminal, behavior by their members. Yet that is the situation confronting Japan’s law-enforcement officials, as scandals involving illegal acts by police officers seem to erupt day after day. No wonder the National Police Agency is belatedly seeking to calm the mounting public uproar by proposing the first changes in the Police Law since it came into force in 1954.

The NPA says the revision bill it has drafted would go far to end the rash of scandals by requiring prefectural public-safety commissions to investigate suspected illegal acts by local police officers. The bill, to be submitted to the next regular session of the Diet in January, also seeks to limit the number of times that national and prefectural public-safety commission members can be reappointed. It is doubtless true, as the NPA says, that commission members risk losing their presumed objectivity concerning the police if they remain in their posts for extended periods. It is equally true, however, that commission members should be rigorously selected from the start and that the posts should not be postretirement sinecures.

The proposed revision comes in the wake of a series of major scandals stemming from repeated cases of improper behavior, and subsequent official coverups, involving the Kanagawa Prefectural Police. The NPA announced its plans only days after prosecutors indicted a former chief of the Kanagawa police and four other senior officers there for concealing the admitted habitual use of stimulant drugs by one of their fellow officers. The coverup dates back to 1996, when the officer who confessed to the drug use was instead dismissed for conducting an extramarital affair. He and his former girlfriend were indicted last month for suspected possession and use of amphetamines.

The drug case alone would be bad enough at a time when the use of illegal stimulants is a rapidly growing social problem in Japan. The willfully irresponsible handling of this incident, and the subsequent publicity spotlight thrown on it, cannot help but dilute the NPA’s highly publicized campaign to discourage stimulant drug use, especially by impressionable youths. But, as the media have had a field day in disclosing, incidents of questionable or illegal behavior by members of the Kanagawa Prefectural Police have been wide-ranging, including hit-and-run incidents and the falsifying of accident reports. They have continued even as apologies were issued and vows to rectify the situation were forthcoming.

No incident says more about the breakdown in discipline in the Kanagawa police ranks than the sadistic hazing of new recruits by a former sergeant in charge of a patrol unit based at Atsugi Police Station in the prefecture. His behavior, all of which he admitted in a hearing at the Yokohama District Court earlier this month, included pointing a loaded pistol at the head of one recruit, punching others in the face and stomach and ordering subordinates to burn the body hair of others, while warning his victims not to divulge the reason for their injuries. That the case is not an isolated rarity is indicated by the indictment of another member of the patrol for shocking handcuffed subordinates with an electric massage device.

On the same day that the NPA announced its proposed changes in the Police Law, it began a two-day special inspection of the Kanagawa police force as part of a nationwide drive to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. A similar inspection was planned for Kyoto, where 23 prefectural police officers, including the chief, have been disciplined over the alleged theft by an officer of confiscated illegal drugs. The inspections were planned to check in detail on systems in place for reporting to prefectural public-safety commissions and on specific steps being taken to end improper behavior.

Experts are divided over the need for changes in the law. However, limiting the number of times public-safety commissioners can be reappointed is a good idea. So is the police agency’s plan to raise the minimum age for career officers assigned as prefectural police section chiefs, to reduce the frequent past friction between the section chiefs and locally hired “noncareer” officers, who often have more direct work experience. But what is needed above all is proper training to minimize police arrogance toward the public and to instill the pride that accompanies genuine discipline. Without both, no police force can function successfully.

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