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A feature of the National Police Agency’s new white paper for 2000 is its recognition of the need to repair the tarnished image of Japan’s scandal-tainted police forces. In a preface titled “Aiming to Regain the Nation’s Trust,” the document for the first time ever in a report of this kind tackles the touchy subject of criminal acts committed by the police themselves, including coverups of illegal behavior by fellow officers. This acknowledgment of a painful truth is certainly welcome, but because it is so belated it does not call for congratulations.

Of course, the white paper deals with many other aspects of the current crime situation in Japan. But some of these also do not reflect well on the police — most notably the fact that while crime continues to increase (a record 2.17 million offenses were reported in 1999), the arrest rate has plummeted to a record low. The NPA had already warned the public of this disturbing trend last month, when it described the same imbalance in its regular interim report on conditions in the first six months of this year. It is clear that what was a bad situation in 1999 is proving even worse in 2000.

It is not news that police investigations have failed to keep pace with the rise in serious crime. Several possible reasons have been suggested, but the NPA white paper gives major attention to two: the sudden upsurge in sophisticated “high-tech” crime and, in a regrettable but not so surprising development, a marked drop in the public’s willingness to cooperate in criminal investigations.

Today’s impersonal urban lifestyle, in which condominium residents rarely know and almost never see their neighbors, undoubtedly contributes to the lack of public enthusiasm. So does a newly heightened awareness of the need for personal privacy in a society where the concept was nearly alien until recently. But surely almost as important in making citizens less likely to help in investigations is their growing disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the way the police perform their duties, as reflected in a new nationwide survey. For that the police have only themselves to blame, since the survey of some 2,000 adults took place in June after some of the worst of this year’s scandals had come to light.

The damning results speak for themselves. Close to three-fourths, or 73.1 percent, of those surveyed voiced dissatisfaction with one or another aspect of police investigations. Only a little more than 20 percent thought the handling of criminal investigations was “fairly good,” well under half the 47.8 percent who held that opinion in a similar survey in 1972. The percentage of respondents generally dissatisfied with such investigations rose from 5.8 percent in the earlier survey to 37.1 percent this time. Among those reporting that they or a family member had been a crime victim last year, more than 45 percent failed to report the incident to the police, either because it did not seem serious enough or because doing so was too much trouble. More than 20 percent doubted the culprit would be apprehended even if they did file a report.

It may be true that the poor citizenship demonstrated by some of these responses reflects the selfishness promoted by today’s emphasis on instant gratification of material desires (which may also explain the behavior of the criminals). Then again, it may simply represent an unwillingness to become personally involved after the widespread media attention given to notorious recent cases of failure to act by the police themselves, sometimes with tragic consequences, even after repeated requests for assistance and intervention.

Well over three-fourths of the investigators at large urban police stations around the country report increasing problems in obtaining the public’s cooperation in solving cases. Whatever the reasons, the result is that only an abysmal 2.4 percent of the arrests made last year resulted from statements by neighbors or others, for 6,676 arrests, a little more than half the figure in 1990. The police agency promises to do all it can to meet public expectations and says it is reorganizing internal systems to prevent a recurrence of scandals. It had better do so quickly. Last year, 39 police officers were dismissed nationwide for disciplinary reasons. In the first half of this year alone, the total had already reached 38.

Restoring the public’s trust will not come easily. Improving the level of police investigations is only one step toward that goal. Another is strengthening discipline throughout the ranks and implementing positive moves to end police arrogance in dealing with the public. If the National Police Agency means what it says, it should see that its members go beyond promises and lip service to prove it.

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