The Japanese police system was once regarded as one of the best in the world, but that is no longer true. In a spate of scandals, some officers are said to have created slush funds with public money while others have falsified internal reports to improve their performance records.

In its 2004 white paper, the National Police Agency acknowledged that police budgets have sometimes been misused. The report said, for example, that officers in Hokkaido, Shizuoka and Fukuoka prefectures misappropriated investigation and travel expenses to throw parties for themselves. The report made no mention of any NPA role in the scandals, which stirred debate in the Diet. It suggested that individual prefectural police departments were responsible, and failed to clarify how the secret funds were created and used.

Punitive action taken by prefectural police departments against offending officers have amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

After Hokkaido prefectural police were rocked by a major slush-fund scandal, 1,400 active officers above the rank of inspector plus several hundred retired officers agreed to pay a total of 916 million yen to compensate for the misuse of public money. This arrangement, which showed that senior officers benefited from secret funds, seemed intended to blur the lines of responsibility.

A final report on the internal investigations of the scandals concluded that officers at local police stations were unaware of potential problems stemming from slush funds and that higher officials at prefectural and regional headquarters did not even know they existed.

While former senior officers in Hokkaido revealed that such funds were spent on tournaments, gifts for officers leaving on business trips and illegal allowances to officers, the report said use of the funds was limited to parties for officers and meal expenses. The report presumably avoided mentioning misuse of funds for private purposes, since that would have lead to charges of embezzlement, which is subject to criminal punishment.

In December, punitive measures were announced against some 3,000 Hokkaido police officers. But the head of the Hokkaido police at the time and the chiefs of major police stations only took pay cuts, which many people in Hokkaido thought were too lenient.

Misuse of public funds may be difficult to prove, but public prosecutors should investigate officers who allegedly falsified reports with fictitious names. It is hard to imagine that several prefectures would launch illegal accounting practices of a similar nature without the NPA’s knowledge. The NPA has yet to take responsibility for this problem.

In only three prefectures — where whistle-blowers exposed the existence of slush funds — have officers agreed to make restitution for the misuse of public funds. In a dozen others, police have refused to cooperate with investigations, which are making little headway.

Honest officers have been frustrated. In January, Ehime prefectural railway police Sgt. Toshiro Senba said at a news conference that supervisors had forced him for a long time to falsify receipts to create a slush fund. This was the first time that an active officer publicly disclosed police wrongdoing. The NPA should expect more disclosures unless it lays out the extent and background of illegal accounting practices.

Four days after Senba dropped this bombshell, Ehime prefectural police transferred him to a dispatcher division. Senba has demanded the withdrawal of what he calls a retaliatory action. The transfer would seem to contravene a whistle-blower protection law enacted last June. Meanwhile, police authorities have yet to take action to address the issue of illegal accounting.

In December, 163 members of the Hyogo prefectural police’s highway patrol were subjected to disciplinary action, including dismissals and temporary suspension from duty, for falsifying internal reports to improve their performance records. Falsification of reports should hardly be surprising, since wrongdoing breeds wrongdoing.

Public prosecutors also are suspected of creating slush funds. On Feb. 1, Tamaki Mitsui, former public security chief in the Osaka High Prosecutor’s Office, was sentenced to 20 months in prison following his conviction on charges of taking bribes and abusing authority. Separately, during court proceedings, Mitsui had alleged that prosecutors misused investigation funds. In handing down the sentence, the Osaka District Court judge said Mitsui’s allegations require close scrutiny, but the Justice Ministry and public prosecutor’ offices have failed to clarify their responsibilities in the matter.

Investigation expenses claimed by public prosecutors nationwide in fiscal 2003 dropped to one-seventh of the record 553 million yen in 1998. There is speculation that prosecutors have cut back on such spending in the face of growing public criticism of alleged slush funds. Police and prosecutors should perhaps investigate each other’s irregularities.

In December, the Diet enacted drastic revisions of the penal code and the criminal-procedure law to make it possible to impose heavier prison sentences and lengthen the expiration period of statutes of limitations. In addition, prefectural police in the nation will add 10,000 officers in three years from fiscal 2005. The measure, though, will have a questionable effect on increasing public confidence in security after police and public prosecutors have squandered so much of it.

To regain it, police and public prosecutors must thoroughly investigate questionable practices in their ranks, instead of cutting probes short.

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