Sections of the Japanese police force have recently been sharply and justifiably criticized, as have police in other countries from time to time. The maintenance of high ethical standards in police forces worldwide should be a high priority for all governments. Yet it is not an easy thing to achieve.
Police who are criticized, whether an entire force or specific individuals, are rarely willing to accept full responsibility for their actions and often manage to cover up illegal acts. In many societies, the authorities sometimes argue that it is better to overlook police failings so that the fight against crime will not be undermined. But if the police are allowed to escape responsibility for their mistakes or criminal acts, the maintenance of law and order will become more difficult and human-rights abuses will grow.
The first priority must, in my view, be to defend human rights. This requires constant vigilance on the part of politicians, the judiciary and the media. Politicians are often corrupted by power and unfortunately cannot generally be relied on to promote human rights and pursue police reform vigorously, but an independent judiciary and an active media should be able to do so. Threats by criminals against the judiciary and media must accordingly be dealt with particularly firmly.
In Britain, and especially in London, the police have recently been sharply condemned as racist in their attitudes to colored people. They have been accused of picking on colored people and failing to follow up sufficiently vigorously on complaints made by colored people of crimes committed against them. The murder in South London of a colored teenager named Stephen Lawrence by a mob of white youths was seriously mishandled by the police, and the culprits have never been found guilty and punished. As a result of the public outcry over the case, a full-scale judicial inquiry was established. It reported institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police and proposed various reforms. The government accepted the main recommendations, and changes are being made in the force to meet these criticisms.
Unfortunately, there have also been certain cases where it appears that the police either manufactured or distorted evidence and manipulated confessions. Several convictions for serious crimes have as a result been set aside by the courts on appeal or after long and strident protests. These episodes are shameful, especially as the reputation of British police forces over the years has been generally good.
The police in Britain, as in other countries, face pressures to be firm in the fight against crime and are criticized for their failures to solve crimes, especially violent ones. The rates of reported crime have continued to rise, but crime statistics need to be treated with some skepticism. It seems clear that many more petty crimes are being reported than in the past, not least because notifying the police is required before insurance companies will make payments. Crimes involving the use of firearms in Britain are far less than in the United States. Most British observers believe that this is due to stringent restrictions in Britain on purchasing or keeping firearms. The British police force is one of the very few in the world in which street officers do not routinely carry firearms.
Police reforms will be pushed hard by the British government and will generally have the support of public opinion. Any evidence of strong-arm tactics by the police against suspects invariably arouses the ire of the judiciary and can lead to demands for compensation for wrongful arrest and ill-treatment. The British public has a generally higher degree of protection against police misuse of their powers than people in most other democratic countries.
The police in Japan have largely lived down their bad wartime and prewar reputation. But there are still some worrying aspects to their behavior. Detention prior to trial often seems unjustifiably long, and the legal rights of arrested persons seem too limited. Admissions of guilt seem still to be the norm. The rate of convictions in Japanese courts remains exceptionally high. Do these factors raise doubt about the way confessions are obtained and about the legal process in Japan?
There is still a strong lobby in Japan for the retention of the death penalty. I am firmly opposed to capital punishment, not least because of the possibility that an innocent person might be executed for a crime he or she did not commit. There have been reports recently from the U.S. of convicts on death row who have been found innocent almost at the last moment. Is this not a possibility in Japan?
Some recent cases — for example, in Kanagawa and Niigata prefectures — suggest that there are sections of the Japanese police that are not only inefficient, but also corrupt. In some forces, it seems, police are ready to cover up wrongdoing by their colleagues.
The Japanese government is no doubt embarrassed by the recent scandals, especially in the face of reports of growing antisocial behavior among teenagers and schoolchildren. These may be due to breakdowns in family life and school discipline, but such behavior requires increased efficiency and sensitivity on the part of the police. It was reported that the immediate response of the public service commission to police scandals was a cut of 10 percent over one month in the chief of police’s pay. This strikes an outside observer as a ludicrous and totally inadequate reaction.
While I accept that there are limitations and drawbacks to the British system of setting up judicial and public inquiries when there is evidence of abuses, I do wonder why the Japanese authorities eschew such methods. Is it that Japanese laws do not provide for the use of senior judges to conduct such inquiries and the taking of evidence on oath? Or does the status of Japan’s professional judges as civil servants prevent them from acting with full judicial independence? If so, could not a judicial inquiry be presided over by an outstanding academic lawyer of good repute?
An efficient, independent police force trained and determined to uphold human rights is surely a necessity for the future health of Japanese democracy. Abuses should be carefully investigated, the facts exposed and responsibility assigned. In my view, this requires a tribunal totally independent of government and the police.
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