Aid for Indonesia's buffeted police

Efforts to regain public trust and cut vigilantism include foreign training and watchdog groups.

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The accused: a man suspected of stealing a motorbike. The judge and jury: a group of men at the market. The punishment: being doused with gasoline and set on fire.

"I've seen it several times," says Eko Wahyu, a driver who described the grisly street-justice scene. "People are taking the law into their own hands, because if they go to the police, they know the cops will just be paid off with a bribe."

In a nation struggling to cope with economic deterioration, separatism, ethnic violence, and a political crisis that could lead to the impeachment of its president, Indonesia's police force looks like a sputtering vehicle that is failing to transport the country into more stable times.

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But several local and foreign initiatives aimed at making the police more accountable and training them to better handle major civil disturbances give some here hope that Indonesia can avert a complete breakdown of law and order.

Policewatch, a civilian watchdog group in Jakarta, says it has seen an upsurge in vigilantism, but declined to provide exact figures. "Every day in Jakarta, there's a case like that," says lawyer Adnan Pandrupaja, a founder of Policewatch, of on-the-spot attacks. "Over 100 rupiahs, people are killing each other. Not for the money, but from the emotional frustration. What's missing in this country is trust, from the president on down to the police. When something happens, people try to solve the problem - instantly."

A group such as Policewatch would not have been allowed to operate under the paternalistic rule of former President Suharto, who was in power for 32 years. But some say the absence of that kind of authority has turned into freedom run amok. Criminals have no fear of being caught, and police have no credibility.

"We used to be under the thumb of an authoritarian system, and now we've got the extreme opposite," says Khrar Nusa Bhakti, a military and police analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. President Abdurrahman Wahid's move toward regional autonomy, an attempt to placate separatists, is in some places being supplanted by a kind of anarchy. The recent ethnic cleansing by Dayaks of Madurese in Borneo, Dr. Bhakti says, is a prime example.

Three months ago, the police force was separated from the military as part of the transition from decades of dictatorship. But the police - who used to simply take orders and financing from the military - lack training, riot equipment, and funding.

Now, average Indonesians have so little confidence in their local police that when officers do arrive on the scene of a crime, they are often beaten by bystanders. The police are still dependent on the military for back-up, but coordination between the two is poor. When the armed forces arrived at the scene of recent bloodletting in Borneo, the soldiers and officers didn't recognize each other, and a shoot-out ensued.

Moreover, the use of the police in the country's battle against armed separatists makes it more difficult for the police to transform themselves into a force dedicated to service of the community.

In this diverse nation of 210 million, 200,000 officers are expected to fight crime, communal violence, and militant secessionists alike. But on low salaries - many here blame the government's failure to invest in the basics of building a civil society - police are reluctant to put their lives at risk. Most are paid the equivalent of about a dollar a day (about average for low-ranking civil servants), and the basic allocation for a police investigation is 50,000 rupiah, or about $4.75, according to Policewatch.

"The police are demoralized, and so they hesitate to act," says Salim Said, an Indonesian political scientist specializing in military and security affairs.

Several movements targeted at improving police performance, though still in their infancy, appear to be presenting some alternatives. One US program begun last year includes revamping the trainee curriculum, learning how to involve community leaders in crime-fighting, and tactical training in coping with crowd-control problems that have historically led to bloodshed. Police opened fire on demonstrators during anti-Suharto protests in 1998, starting a spiral of violence that many here fear could be repeated as pro- and anti-Wahid demonstrations grow.

"We use our own tapes, from the L.A. riots to Seattle, and by using our own examples of failures of police control in America, we can say: 'Hey folks, we learned, and we know you've seen this in Jakarta," says Steven Hargrove, senior police adviser in Jakarta for the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), part of the US Department of Justice. The program is one that the US has been bringing to many emerging democracies, but this is the first time such assistance from Washington has arrived in Southeast Asia. Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom have also been providing similar assistance to Indonesia.

In the proposed next phase of the program - not yet funded by the Bush administration - Mr. Hargrove's team wants to concentrate on community policing. Regional police are due to gain more powers under a decentralization program, but they are often the most lacking in training and equipment.

Indonesians say they are not yet sure whether such imported concepts will translate well. But they are exploring ways to encourage more community input. Policewatch is drafting legislation that would create an oversight board of civilians for each police department in the country. That would give the public the right to review the performance of their officers, virtually unheard of in today's Indonesia.

That, and much else, is changing, says reformers in the ranks. But not all police will adjust easily.

"The Americans are trying to show us, in a civilian-policing context, what should be done, like using minimum force," says Police Col. Ermiady Yadi. "We used to be very militaristic.... But many in the police don't realize that we're doing that," Mr. Yadi says. "The old culture is still there, and it is very difficult to involve a lot of officers in the changes. Someday, we're going to have to be held responsible for what we do."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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