ASEAN: Preventing Improper Police Conduct and Recognising Police Professionalism

Senior officials from ASEAN countries have just concluded a meeting in Singapore on the trafficking of persons (story here). According to the official press release, this meeting focused on “improving communications and cooperation” (story here); this is consistent with ASEAN’s traditional focus on technical knowledge-sharing and skills exchange in the area of police cooperation. However, it is noteworthy to recall that during its last 2011 meeting, ASEANAPOL had adopted a Joint Communique that expressed a commitment to the idea of police “professionalism” (story here). Such shared baseline values will become increasingly important as ASEAN countries consolidate their rule of law efforts, and will go towards improving policing standards and the prevention of wrongful convictions.

A common cause of wrongful convictions is the problem of false confessions, which may result from improper police conduct. Earlier this year, Indonesian Police Watch highlighted the need to improve Indonesian police recruitment and training to prevent police misconduct (story here). This is particularly relevant given recent allegations of false confessions involving police physical abuse in Indonesia (story here).

The idea of improper police conduct popularly evokes images of horrific police abuse or torture. This is not necessarily so. In two recent cases, the Singapore Court of Appeal criticised the police for improprieties that did not involve physical force (story here). An arrested person encounters police investigators backed by the power and authority of the State. In light of such power dynamics, many may falsely confess when pressured, even when the pressure exerted does not involve force or abuse, and even when such pressure is not malicious or intentional.

It is therefore important for ASEAN and its member countries to further develop this idea of “professionalism” in cultivating, or further strengthening, a respect among police forces for those they investigate as well as those they protect.

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