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Two high-ranking police officials resigned Tuesday as an expression of responsibility for their misconduct amid a public outcry that they deserved even heavier punishment. In fact, such was the degree of public disgust that the resignations of the disgraced officials, Mr. Yoshiyuki Nakada, head of the National Police Agency’s Kanto Regional Police Bureau, and Mr. Koji Kobayashi, Niigata prefectural police chief, have prompted no sympathy.

It was disclosed last month that the pair and two other prefectural police officials had been wining, dining and playing mah-jongg at a Niigata hotel on the day a girl held captive for more than nine years was found. Mr. Nakada was visiting Niigata Prefecture under orders to conduct an inspection and to bolster morale among local police following a series of scandals over the past year. But he inspected only one police station for about an hour and went to the hotel without visiting the prefectural police headquarters.

This entire scandal began with the failure of the Niigata police’s failure to take appropriate action soon after the girl was reported missing — a fact that only recently became known. In compiling a list of suspects in the early stages of her captivity, the police overlooked the actual abductor, who had been convicted of a similar crime in the past. If the Niigata police had followed basic procedures during their initial investigation into the case, the girl would never have had to undergo such an inhuman ordeal.

The high-ranking police officials’ misconduct has added fuel to public resentment over their performance in the abduction case. It also provokes the strong suspicion that these rotten elements at the core of the nation’s police bureaucracy are eroding the entire system. Only by looking at the problem this way, it seems, can we explain the unbelievably frequent incidence of police malfeasance and corruption in recent years. It is a matter of deep regret, not only for the police, but for the public, that the nation’s law-enforcement organizations, long regarded as the finest of the social forces charged with maintaining public safety, appear to be gradually losing their unqualified reliability.

More than 800 concerned people have therefore called the NPA and the prefectural police headquarters to protest against the ranking officials’ misconduct. At the same time, the mass media’s call for severer penalties for the officials is supported by the public at large. But government officials, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, said the government was unable to do more once the NPA and the National Public Safety Commission had decided on their punishment. Of course, the officials in question did not violate any written law, but, given the circumstances, their conduct was more offensive to society than a mere brush with the law.

In a sense, their blunder is symptomatic of institutional fatigue. It must be considered as a problem afflicting the entire police organization or bureaucracy.

The recurrence of scandals involving high-ranking police officials calls for an urgent overhaul of the nation’s entire law-enforcement system. Currently, for example, a handful of so-called “elite” officials, who have passed the national examination to join the police bureaucracy, assume top posts in the hierarchy in the order of their entry into the service.

Even an appointment to the post of prefectural police chief is made almost automatically, without a strict evaluation of the candidate in terms of either ability and integrity. It is impossible to prevent a recurrence of similar misconduct unless this system is drastically reformed. Who can expect the essential system of mutual cross-checks to function effectively in such circumstances?

Thus, it is no wonder that the latest blunder came just after the former director general of the National Police Agency stepped down in the wake of a series of police scandals, and when the strengthened powers of the NPSC and stricter measures against police misconduct were just about to take effect. Obviously, the top officers of the Niigata police and the NPA’s Kanto Regional Police Bureau have learned little from last year’s spate of police scandals in Kanagawa Prefecture and elsewhere, and have not been serious enough in their efforts to regain public confidence.

The recent lackluster performance of the nation’s police raises a serious concern: Can they cope with the diversified kinds of crime that result from rapid changes in society? The arrogant and complacent police bureaucracy faces an urgent need to reform itself.

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