Zamboanga Style Public Safety

A Human Rights Lawyer Takes a Dig at the City’s Army Task Force

Zamboanga City – ISSUES on public safety always remain integral in any Filipino community, especially for a highly urbanized city in Mindanao. Zamboanga, which ranks among the oldest cities in Mindanao, has been the center of social, cultural, economic and political convergence for the various ethnic, tribal, indigenous and local migrant societies that have evolved and settled in here. Such diversity has formed a unique Zamboangueño community that currently inhabits the once Hispanic stronghold of the old colonial Philippines.

Just as it was during the Marcos years, Zamboanga has maintained an oppositionist stance towards the political leadership of the incumbent Arroyo government. And just as it was then, Zamboanga City has remained home to one of the largest military facilities outside Luzon – the Western Mindanao Command, formerly known as the Southern Command. It is without doubt therefore that Zamboanga has always been and continues to hold a strategic position to ensure a well-established supremacy of the central government that Malacañan continuous to enjoy amid the multiple threats of secession.

The supposed glamorous image of the military does not entirely make the Zamboangueño folk stand in awe, very much like the typical Filipino in any part of the country during the Martial Law era. However, compared to the whistle-blowing policeman, the battle-clad soldier seemed to have surpassed the former in the swift elimination of threats from what the citizenry sees as enemies of peace and public order during those years of the First Quarter Storm. Such scenario was normal especially so as the local police units were completely integrated into a national entity merged as one of the major services under the armed forces. This development has misled the views of the common tao into thinking that there exists no distinction between a soldier and a policeman in the exercise of law enforcement and public safety.

This quandary paints a funny picture since as early as during the time of the ancient Roman Empire, man has already seen the difference between maintaining a standing army called “legions” for military campaigns and the keeping of internal order by special units called “prefectures”.

It is funnier still that to this day, way beyond the Martial Law years and even three Presidents after Marcos, Zamboanga remains as a venue where one can easily see battle-ready military infantry units walking through its streets doing police visibility and police patrol routines. Indeed, nothing much has changed.

Of course, all these have occurred based on the 1987 constitution and RAs 6975 and 8551.

In these modern times, crime – organized or otherwise – is worsened by terror attacks and not even the strongest of the superpowers could claim invulnerability. The Powell doctrine, which is a military concept aimed at deterring acts of terror, has been adopted by the US and even its police agencies have found its use in the fight against terror within their respective localities.

The Powell doctrine has spurred the unprecedented rapid expansion of counter-terrorist units in the form of Special Weapons and Tactics, Explosive and Ordnance Disposal and K-9 teams in the public safety spectrum and has proven to be a very effective tool in the deterrence of even the most hardened of criminals.

The Zamboanga City Police Office, which serves a diverse population, does have its own SWAT and EOD units. However, Zamboanga City still does conceive the need for the long-existing Task Force Zamboanga, which is comprised by military units of the First Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. It can indeed be viewed as long-existing since task forces operate under a limited period based on the concept of adhocracy.

The sight of combat-ready military troops sprawled all over downtown depicts an eerie atmosphere for those unaccustomed to too much military presence in highly urbanized areas. Ironically, however, the ordinary Zamboanga folk seem to be more comfortable having them on the streets rather than the regular baton-carrying policeman or maybe perhaps he sees no difference and having military troops in any ordinary day within the city proper has always been normal. Whatever the reasons, Zamboanga City’s image as a society adhering to the principle of civilian supremacy over the military is hardly convincing.

It is evident, therefore, that the political leadership in Zamboanga City has become reliant to military contingents who are in the first place tasked to combat insurgency and maintain national defense. A soldier does have his own expertise peculiar only to his unique function as a member of the armed forces and certainly it is not and can never be the responsibility of policing civilians. Moreover, unless we are at war, the armed forces must find its place under the sun during peaceful times and continue to be focused on its function to protect national sovereignty. The military must learn to admit that police work and public safety is not and can never be its turf.

The question on whether or not military presence in Zamboanga City is justifiable depends much on whether or not military absence would render the local police completely crippled and incapable in ensuring public safety. However, a more serious issue must confront the police agency on its capability and such cannot be resolved by mere imitation of the armed forces since it is only the police that possess not only the mandate but the appropriate training in public safety.
On the other hand, the glamour of uniforms worn by policemen need not be too military in view of the fact that the police organization has its own functions peculiar only to itself and totally independent of military traditions. The firepower capability of police units need not be flaunted by a regular beat guard thru the wearing of camouflaged or all-black battle dress attires, burdensome assault rifles and ammunitions for such is laughable, if not impractical. Paramilitary police units like the SWAT, EOD and K9 teams as encouraged by the Powell doctrine must remain ready and on-call 24/7. These special units in the police organization should be developed and completely maintained to confront serious threats in public safety like terrorism and organized crime.

There is no substitute for ample preparation and while the cost of keeping such specialized units in the police force maybe far too high for something that seems to be scarcely needed then be assured that it is better to have the capability without ever finding the need to use it than realizing the need but not having the capability.

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