The Japanese police have long enjoyed a high reputation both at home and abroad, due partly to their efficiency in apprehending criminals. Today, however, the Japanese police system is suffering from a breakdown of ethics, caused in part by its insular nature.

The recent scandal involving the commissioner of the Niigata Prefectural Police Headquarters assumed serious proportions when it was revealed that the Niigata police failed to comply with a request from a public health center to dispatch officers to confirm the identity of a woman whom public health officials suspected had been abducted. The police headquarters was obliged to correct its earlier false statement because an another public office was involved. I suspect that the police scandal is only the tip of the iceberg, and that similar cases exist throughout the country.

In an attempt to quell the public’s anger, the National Police Agency accepted the resignation of the Niigata commissioner and the director general of the agency’s Kanto Regional Police Bureau, and cut the latter’s salary as well.

These disciplinary measures are not strong enough to help eliminate such a problem, which obviously is rooted in the structural fatigue of the Japanese police system. A revamping of the entire system is required.

Since the disclosure of the scandal, a number of reform proposals have been made by the media, political parties and various government bodies. A majority of such proposals call for reorganizing the National Public Safety Commission and amending the system giving preferential treatment to career officers.

Specifically, these proposals call for strengthening the functions of the NPSC, and that its secretariat be made independent of the NPA; that the members of the commission be elected publicly to make them active rather than “honorary” positions; that information regarding the commission and the police be made public; that supervision over police administration be reviewed; that top positions at prefectural police headquarters be given to noncareer officers to give them more incentives; and that career officers get more practical experience.

Both the government and the Liberal Democratic Party are considering ways to substantially reform the police system. However, they do not particularly support proposals to hold public elections for members of the NPSC.

Unfortunately, no proposal calls for the creation of a labor union for members of the police, a common feature in North America and Europe. One factor behind the scandal in Niigata is the structure of the prefectural police organization. Its head is treated like a king, and his subordinates hesitate to express critical opinions no matter how correct they may be. To ensure transparency of the police organization, members of the police should be allowed to form their own labor union.

The NPA sought to conceal the scandals at both the Kanagawa and Niigata Prefectural Police Headquarters, and by so doing ended up revealing that the entire police organization is shrouded in lies. In order to restructure itself as a body worthy of public trust, it is incumbent upon the agency to clarify two major falsifications it has committed.

One relates to an incident in which the Kanagawa Prefectural Police Headquarters tapped the telephone of Japan Communist Party leader Yasuo Ogata in 1986. Ogata sued the central government, Kanagawa Prefecture and four policemen involved in the case and sought damages. In the ruling handed down in 1997, the Tokyo High Court ruled that three of the policemen were involved in the wiretapping “as part of their official duties,” and ordered the central government and Kanagawa Prefectural Government to pay about 4 million yen in damages to Ogata.

Although neither side appealed the case to the Supreme Court, the police have since continued to deny that wiretapping took place, and insist that nothing illegal was done. This attitude shows that the police are determined to protect themselves, even if they have to resort to telling lies, resulting in the public’s loss of trust.

The other falsification relates to the exposure of wrongdoing within the police by a former ranking officer in a 1984 book titled, “My Crimes Are Always in Front of Me.” The matter was taken up in the Upper House by the socialists but the police simply said that the author, Tadamitsu Matsuhashi, had lied.

In the Niigata scandal, the prefectural police chief and the director general of the Kanto Regional Police Bureau were found playing mah-jongg on the day a girl who had been abducted nine years ago was rescued. Moreover, suspicions exist that the policemen may have been using public funds to gamble.

The Niigata scandal has prompted the demand that an independent, third-party organization inspect and supervise the police organization, but this proposal is being strongly resisted by the police authorities. This resistance reflects fear on the part of the police that ugly practices of the past might come to light.

If the police continue to fail to address such suspicions, they can not hope to regain the public’s confidence.

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