A government-appointed, private-sector panel of advisers has now issued its much anticipated recommendations for changes in the nation’s scandal-tainted police forces. The Council on the Reform of Police Systems delivered its proposals one month later than first promised, and the original draft developed by Mr. Seiichiro Ujiie, council chairman and the president of Nippon Television Network Corp., was adjusted to reflect the views of other panel members. Nevertheless, the final document retains specific, hard-hitting suggestions for a top-to-bottom housecleaning to restore public trust in the police.

Over the last few months, other proposals for improving police discipline and ethics have come from many quarters, but none has had much impact. There is reason to hope the council’s recommendations will fare better. They were presented to Mr. Mamoru Nishida, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, under whose authorization the panel was established and which is also the government body charged with supervising the National Police Agency. Mr. Nishida then immediately called on the public to monitor and support the reform efforts.

He may well have done this as a means of acknowledging continued malfeasance in the police ranks, sometimes allegedly with the encouragement of senior officers. It is the public, after all, that is demanding such reform. Reported incidents in the last several months alone range from coverups of illegal drug use and chronic traffic-speeding offenses by colleagues and superiors, from shoplifting to sexual molestation on crowded commuter trains, and from tampering with evidence in complaints filed by citizens to attempts at outright extortion. Despite repeated apologies and promises of improvement from regional police chiefs, no real change has been detected.

The report from the police reform council rightly says the need for action is urgent. The document pointedly notes that the closed nature of the police forces and the tendency to encourage secrecy among their members have contributed to a breakdown in overall discipline. This had led to the inability of police administrators to function efficiently, in part because of the arrogance of career-track officers. National police systems vary, but some of these problems are universal. One difference is that public outcries in other industrialized democracies can sometimes lead to more than token improvements.

The council’s recommendations are by no means the vague platitudes with which groups of governmental “wise men” sometimes conclude their tours of duty. On the contrary, they call on the police at all levels to undertake basic and far-reaching changes. Perhaps most unexpected, and most deserving of immediate attention, is the panel’s urging of a shift from the current — and in the panel’s view outdated — emphasis on ensuring public safety and maintaining public order to a new concern for protecting people’s lives and property as part of everyday police responsibility.

This recommendation clearly stems from what the council found to be the unusual number of recent cases in which local police officers failed to act on complaints on the grounds of not intervening in private civil matters. In two among several notorious incidents, the victims died because of police refusal to take action. The insistence on doing nothing until a crime is known to have been committed, despite repeated requests for police assistance, is tantamount to dereliction of duty.

Among the council’s specific proposals are calls to raise the number of police officers by at least 10 percent, for an increase of some 23,000, but with fewer of them assigned to the management level. Japan’s police forces are smaller than in some other industrialized nations, partly because the numbers seemed sufficient. That is no longer true, but this is one recommendation on which the National Police Agency may find its hands tied, since the government has just announced plans for sizable cuts in the ranks of civil servants in the five-year period starting in fiscal 2001.

It is noteworthy that the panel turned down the opposition parties’ suggestion for police supervision by a third party because it would be ineffective. One reason, of course, is the anticipated lack of cooperation from the police ranks. Mr. Ujiie, the council chairman, has commented on the fierce resistance and even opposition his group experienced, although he believes a gradual change in attitude has occurred. The public certainly hopes so. The panel’s proposals for better and longer training, for new guidelines to encourage greater transparency and for improved supervision and investigation methods may carry no legal weight, but they have a great deal of moral weight and citizen support behind them.

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