Cover-up at the core, police accountability must begin now

The case is is a strong indication of a persistent practice to subvert the law within the police force, which should be a priority concern.

Herbin Siahaan and Adi Abidin

Herbin Siahaan and Adi Abidin

The Jakarta Post


August 29, 2022

JAKARTA – The entire set of key officers, including all of those in leadership roles, of the National Police’s internal affairs division have come under investigation for their alleged role in the cover-up of the murder of low-ranking officer Brig. Yosua Hutabarat.

Other senior officers from various other units were also implicated in the cover-up. Chief of the division, Insp. Gen. Ferdy Sambo, has been indicted as the mastermind behind the killing and the subsequent cover up.

This cannot be taken only as an ordinary murder case.

This is a strong indication of a persistent practice to subvert the law within the police force, which should be a priority concern.

Even after the police now rush to rectify the situation, public skepticism still abounds.

The cover-up held sway for several weeks before it was finally discarded, partly because President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo heeded public pressure and instructed the police to be fully transparent with this case.

This is entirely unacceptable if we are to have a society that respects the rule of law.

Those at the center of this case are the officers of the state who are supposed to uphold the integrity of the force, the core of the National Police.

Instead, we now witness the ultimate in abuse of power, corruption and excessive use of force.

In our social contract, the state has the monopoly of force and coercive power.

Within that framework, the state entrusts the law enforcement mandate and the responsibility to maintain public order to the National Police.

It is only due to this trust that the force is equipped with the capability to use force – including firearms – to achieve those state goals of rule of law and public order.

Instead, this murder has revealed a deeply disturbing instance of an abuse and excessive use of force, including an illegal use of firearms by a high-ranking officer.

One notable issue is an abuse of the discretionary authority when concentrated on the subjective assessment of the police.

This has led to many practices of undue and arbitrary case management.

As a result, the legal system – where the policeare at the forefront – appears not as a place to seek justice, but a place to bet financial and other resources to claim justice.

The National Commission on Human Rights is looking into possible human-rights violations committed in the course of this murder.

We can but only wonder how pervasive such actions could be across the force, or how civilians would feel when they ask for lawful protection from the police.

Compounding our disgust is how the trust in the office of internal affairs and the deep investigative and legal processes have been corrupted to mask the murder.

Moreover, the accused is also the chief of an elite unit with special tasks to combat the most prominent crimes: drugs, cybercrimes, corruptions. Had the cover-up held sway, we would have a deadly cancerous tumour within one of our core state institutions.

This case is more than just a wake-up call for reform.

This must serve as the impetus to build a stronger rule of law for our nation, our democracy and our society.
We need it to function in orderly fashion and productively, in all processes and substances.

The rule of law – and associated law enforcement – must be markedly situated in our democratic context where a strong accountability framework must be prominent.

This is essential to ensure that trust and credibility are maintained on the rule itself.

The National Police as the critical element in the rule of law must adhere to such framework.

Moreover, the police are a critical element for the nation’s security sector.

It is the primary state’s arm in maintaining domestic security, especially that pertaining to terrorism or separatism.

These tasks are assigned, though, with the emphasis on enforcing prevailing laws.

In the state’s rule of responsible law, the police sit peculiarly among its peers.

While other institutions are led by the President’s representatives, the police chief stands on his own.

The minister of defence, the attorney general and the intelligence chief are all appointed by the president.

The military commander is only responsible for military operations, but defence policy and budget are directed and managed by the defense minister.

The police runs its mandate, policy and budget on its own, but on the other hand independent internal and external mechanisms are very weak.

The coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister chairs the National Police Commission (Kompolnas) and members do come from outside of the police structure.

But its mandate and authority are far from adequate to serve as the government’s oversight instrument.

Currently, the police force comprises more than 400,000 officers and spends about 4 per cent of the state budget.

Its discretionary powers in governing its institutions and operations is extensive and wide.

Much of this we can perceive from the cover-up in this murder case.

We must open a debate on how to place the police in our government framework for stronger accountability; how to firewall administrative and institutional tasks from its operational activities; how to emphasise community-level policing, rather than national-level case management; how to demarcate law enforcement activities from its more paramilitary tactics.

This latter point requires particular attention.

The case in question demonstrates that officers are prone to resort to violence, and that superiors have absolute command over their subordinates.

While paramilitary units may require such practices in carrying out their duties, law enforcement officers are under more stringent rules.

Police officers must not use arbitrary violence against any other person, period.

The use of violence in performing their tasks must be strictly and carefully measured.

Their conduct must be governed by law all the time.

Government leadership and oversight also need strengthening.

There must be a Cabinet-level official to lead on the policy and administration of policing, as well as a more substantially independent commission to oversee the police’s conduct and practices.

For emphasising policing at community level, a structure needs to be devised to incentivise officers to have more concern for their designated communities, rather than seeking promotion to the national headquarters.

Granted, in designing the structure, the police need to stand within the corridor of law and enforce it, in the words of US Attorney General Merrick Garland, “without fear or favour”.

They must uphold impartiality and avoid any form of favoritism toward the powerful – be they of political, economic or social influence.

The police, which forms the backbone of law enforcement, is expected to work professionally, to maintain independence and most importantly, to take a productive position in building a sense of security given all the support provided to this institution.

We have come a long way from a police force that was under military control.

The police as an independent institution that is critical for the life of the Indonesian state and all citizens is one of the key democratic achievements in the last quarter of a century.

It has ventured away from that stream.

This is the time that we return the National Police into the democratic fold, by becoming a law enforcement institution that serves communities, a professional crime buster, upholding rule-of-law, applying human-rights principles and fully accountable for all its resources and activities.

The writer Herbin Siahaan is a senior legal consultant and a former officer of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). Adi Abidin is a research fellow at Populi Center and a senior analyst at Indovibrant Strategic Advisory.

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