Officers of the Philippine National Police
Officers of the Philippine National Police at the celebration of the 118th Independence Day of the Republic of the Philippines | Photo: Llocos Norte via flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

The Philippine National Police: Finally Putting Limits to Police Use of Deadly Force?

On March 22, 2024, Davao City mayor Sebastian Duterte declared that “Davao City is at war against drugs.” In the following days, seven suspects were killed in police anti-drug operations. However, shortly thereafter the mayor’s call to arms was met with resistance from the police. Several police officers were relieved of their duties and the PNP-chief declared that “there is no need for a drug war.” Is the Philippine National Police finally taking on its dismal record on the use of deadly force?

Following a surge of police killings during the war on drugs initiated by Philippine President Duterte directly after assuming office in July 2016, the number of suspects killed returned to pre-Duterte levels in the last year of his presidency (July 2021 to June 2022). This decline, which received little attention in media and research narratives, stabilized in the past 22 months under the new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The Continuity of Narratives

In early 2023 Human Rights Watch noted that there was “no Letup in ‘Drug war’ under Marcos.” By early April 2024, it criticized “inaction from Manila” in the face of the local drug war started by former President Duterte’s son and mayor of Davao City, Sebastian Duterte. Human Rights organization KARAPATAN criticizes that the new President “maintains the same policies and the same climate of impunity.” The figures on drug-related killings reported by the University of the Philippines DAHAS project, are featured as deaths “in Marcos’s drug war,” even though the majority of those killed were not killed by state agents and the information used for documentation only loosely links the suspect’s death to drug-related dynamics in most cases with unknown perpetrators. This perpetuation of a narrative suggesting a highly repressive and rogue regime/police force makes it difficult to discern and evaluate any changes in actual police behavior and outlook.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that post-Duterte, there is still a pressing need for reforms aimed at reducing the use of deadly force by the police. However, it is imperative to evaluate whether there has been no letup in the war on drugs after Duterte’s, and whether there are signals that suggest a conscious effort at change.

Indicators of Change: the Numbers

The author’s dataset on police use of deadly force documents a total of 418 suspects killed and 27 wounded by the police between July 2022 and March 2024, averaging approximately 240 fatalities annually. It also reveals that 60 police officers were killed and 92 wounded during this period. Among those killed, 25 were not killed in encounters but were ambushed, as were 20 of the wounded. This indicates that over the past two years, fatal deaths involving police intervention in the Philippines were fewer than in the United States (approx. 0.22 against 0.34 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants). Conversely, the victimization rate of police officers in encounters was significantly higher compared to the United States: approximately one police officer died for every 7 civilian victims (excluding those assassinated) in the Philippines compared to one dead police officer per 18 civilian victims in the United States annually for the years 2022 and 2023.

These data indicate that during the Marcos presidency, Philippine police killed fewer suspects in armed encounters relative to the population while facing a higher risk to their own lives compared to law enforcement officers in the United States. This suggests that during the past years there were some constraints on police use of deadly force in place, even amidst the ongoing enforcement of aggressive policing tactics in combating illegal drug production, trade and usage.

Bar graph showing police use of force from 2007 until 2024 and differentiating between suspects killed, suspects wounded, police killed, and police wounded.
Source: own dataset

Davao City and a Police General’s Speech: Indicators for Change?

A recent outlier was Davao City, the hometown of former President Duterte and governed by his son Sebastian since the 2022 elections. Since then, police use of deadly force has grown out of proportion, most probably on account of a still powerful former President who returned to his hometown and a weak mayor wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. During the 21 months from July 2022 to March 2024, a staggering 126 suspects were killed by the police in Davao City, which is 30 percent of the 418 suspects killed by the police nationwide during this period even though Davao City has only approx. 1.5 percent of the population. The local rash of police use of deadly force even surpassed by far the number of such killings during the peaks of the national war on drugs from 2016 to 2019. Despite this, there were no public statements from either the local police chief, police higher-ups or the mayor on this issue.

This changed on March 22, 2024, during the turnover command ceremony of the police director. On that occasion, Davao City Mayor Sebastian Duterte declared a new war on drugs for the city. Echoing the rhetoric of his father, he warned drug pushers “this will be your chance to get out of this city. If not, sorry, […] I’ll kill you.” Predictably this declaration was followed by a surge in police violence with seven suspects killed in the subsequent days.

Surprisingly, following those few days, police violence abruptly ceased, and at least eight police officers implicated in the operations were relieved of their duties. The City police director explained that “if operatives need to be relieved after conducting a buy-bust operation for investigation, the DCPO [Davao City Police Office] will do so because we always follow orders from the higher office of the PNP.” The Regional Police Director Alden Delvo, himself a hardline police officer, critically remarked that it is very unusual if every suspect in an operation fights back, demanding proof from the police that use of force the armed encounters were legitimate. Shortly thereafter, on April 1, the new national police chief, Rommel Marbil, emphasized that “there is no need for a drug war. […] I don’t want to say there is a drug war,” and that there should not be a competition to achieve the highest number of arrests.

He further stressed in his inaugural address that

“We need police officers who […] conduct themselves at all times responsibly, ethically and morally. We need officers who recognize that it is simply not enough to act decisively, relentlessly, and fast in the war against crime, but that there must also be accountability and transparency on our end, and most importantly, we will nurture police officers to whom a humane approach to law enforcement is a given.”

These developments are notable for several reasons: firstly, the higher echelons of the PNP responded swiftly and decisively, effectively addressing a rogue mayor, who openly asserted authority in local security governance. Secondly, the highest-ranking police official in the Philippines took the earliest opportunity to convey that the approach to anti-illegal drug enforcement should not be framed as warfare, indicating a departure from previous practices. Thus, he continues and strengthens his predecessors’ professed focus on rehabilitation for users and a police focus on pushers.

A Political Game or a First Step to Less Violent Policing

The central question now is whether these visible shifts represent the initial phase in a genuine reform process or if it is merely a strategic move in a political game.

The recent developments in Davao City reflect on the one hand ongoing efforts by the police to limit the influence of local politicians on law enforcement, making the PNP less susceptible to local political interference. On the other hand, the timing might suggest a link to a fundamental fallout between former President Rodrigo Duterte and his son, the mayor of Davao City, on one side, and Philippine President Marcos on the other. In late January, tensions over constitutional reforms proposed by the President, which were opposed by the Dutertes, escalated during a rally in Davao City. The mayor openly challenged the President to resign, criticizing him as “lazy and lacking in compassion,” while the mayor’s father accused the President of being influenced by illegal drugs and at risk of being ousted, as his father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was, through revolution. Given the politicization of the Philippine police, the swift backlash against the strongman stance of the Davao City mayor and the former president may be seen as partly a response to put the local executive in his place.

Despite this, the notable decline in police use of lethal force in recent years indicates an effort to counter the patterns set during the early Duterte administration. It’s worth noting, albeit not directly related, that in January 2023, the Marcos government took an initial step towards enforcing stricter discipline by asking for the “voluntary” resignation of all high-ranking police officers. This measure aimed to remove officers with connections to illegal drugs outside of standard procedures, resulting in the dismissal of 18 high-ranking police officers, including 3 Generals and 15 Colonels.

Marbil’s recent remarks underline and strengthen the shift in policing with a focus on changing attitudes towards due process and more respect for human rights. They are a further signal towards a shift in policy, albeit one that will remain precarious. This is not only because Marbil’s term ends in February 2025, when he reaches his mandatory retirement age and because of organizational inertia, but also because of the political pressures typically exerted by politicians at all levels on the police when high-profile cases remain unsolved by the PNP. Despite the PNP rightfully asserting a significant reduction in crime levels in recent years, this achievement can easily be dismissed by populist politicians at all levels, who capitalize on projecting themselves as strong leaders. Moreover, it remains uncertain whether PNP directors at various levels would be able to withstand the public pressure that would inevitably mount if there was a reversal of the downward trend in crime.

The Davao case underscores the substantial impact of local political authority in coercing the police towards unscrupulous practices and its most recent limits. While a tightening of organizational discipline and the limiting of local officials‘ powers to influence the selection of local police directors as currently debated in the Philippine parliament may be sufficient to ensure police insulation against political pressure on the subnational level, they will be unable to mitigate comparable pressures at the highest level of government.

As long as the police hierarchy blindly follows a rogue president, disregarding the rule of law and failing to uphold the standards of their profession, the risk of reverting to the recent past persists, particularly given the continued public approval of the previous president’s aggressive anti-drug campaign. Therefore, organizational improvement demands that not only local commanders but also top-ranking police officers are capable of resisting radical politicians and prioritize their allegiance to the laws of the Philippines above loyalty to any individual.

Peter Kreuzer
Dr. Peter Kreuzer ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter und Projektleiter am PRIF. Sein Fokus liegt auf politischer Gewalt in den Philippinen und maritimen Konflikten im Südchinesischen Meer. // Dr Peter Kreuzer is a Senior Researcher at PRIF. He focuses on political violence in the Philippines and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.

Peter Kreuzer

Dr. Peter Kreuzer ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter und Projektleiter am PRIF. Sein Fokus liegt auf politischer Gewalt in den Philippinen und maritimen Konflikten im Südchinesischen Meer. // Dr Peter Kreuzer is a Senior Researcher at PRIF. He focuses on political violence in the Philippines and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.

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