Opinion: Joe Ferrari might escape punishment due to systematic failures, the system must change

The killing of a drug suspect at the hands of police has shocked the nation. The murder, which allegedly comes after the suspect refused to pay 2 million baht for their own release, was directed by police chief Colonel Thitisan Utthanaphon, nicknamed “Joe Ferrari” for his notorious collection of questionably acquired sports cars.

He later ordered the victim’s female companion to keep her mouth shut as she was released, and paid the father to do the same. 

​​The victim was probably no saint. But he was innocent until proven guilty. At least, he was supposed to be before the police played judge, jury, and executioner. 

Above all, he didn’t deserve to die like that. And his family – like many others – did not deserve to live with the knowledge that his life is so casually wasted.

Systemic Corruption

The video exhibits the kind of impunity that has been a hallmark of policing in Thailand. It is through stories like these that cause the general Thai population to perceive the police as the exact opposite of the prestigious, upstanding members of society that they should be. Indeed, the actions of the police chief and his subordinates are bad enough in itself, but the underlying tragedy here is the system of impunity that enables it. 

The most disgusting thing about this is that virtually no action was taken before the video leaked. And when the video was posted, the police initially merely transferred “Joe Ferrari” to another post.

Comparisons have been made between the way “Joe Ferrari” has been treated with the way human rights defenders and democracy advocates have been treated, but I would also like to point out the stark difference between the way Joe – who got his own press conference to make excuses and was barely restrained – was treated by his fellow policemen and the way he treated his victim.

The double standard in the police ranks clearly evinces that the “few bad apples” argument is untenable. The video awoke the consciousness of a nation to a tragedy that many victims and their relatives already know all too well: it is not a few bad cops that needs to be weeded out, but a whole defunct system that causes this. It demonstrates the urgent need for systemic reform among police ranks. 

Reform: a global perspective

This Nakhon Sawan incident is not uncommon. These issues find a global and national resonance; parallels can be made to the viral video of George Floyd’s brutal murder last summer in the United States, which sparked the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests and calls for police reform. It also echoes the murder of Sarah Everard by a firearms officer in the United Kingdom last summer. 

And of course, there are other cases in Thailand, where the police has been using disproportionate force against protestors; the police routinely commit human rights abuses in Thai deep southern provinces; where torture and enforced disappearances form part of Thailand’s troubled past and present. 

So what lessons can we learn from the video of the killing? Thailand should take heed of the global debate on law enforcement methods and police brutality that emerged last summer.

First, the institutional nature of this harm must be recognised for systemic reform. The police are as human and as prone to corruption as the rest of society. An institution made up of these people can be defective not only through the few abhorrent cops that we can condemn on individual terms, but as a collective system in itself. Therefore, like any other system, law enforcement must be able to be scrutinised by an independent authority and accordingly reformed. 

Already, the police are trying to make it seem like a single, isolated incident. They are trying, quite unsuccessfully, to shift the narrative to make it seem like it was an accident borne with good intentions but bad execution (no pun intended). 

The police have also tried to deflect attention and told the public to stop sharing, saying that it will affect an ongoing investigation (read: cover-up) and will disrespect the victim (that they had no respect for in the first place).

We cannot let this happen. We must abandon thinking of the murders as a product of just sole, individual actors. Just like in the US, the essential harm of policing is not the police that kills us, but the system that allows them to do it. 

While Thailand may not have the race issues to divide us the same way as that in the United States, double standards are still acutely evident, as aforementioned. Cops can and will try to cover for each other– unless the whole institution is changed.

This leads to my second point: political will and implementation is needed for reform. The Thai government seemed to have not fully understood this, once again defending the lackadaisical reform efforts last Friday in the wake of this incident. While police reform was listed as one of Prayut’s main agendas, it seems to have stalled since the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, passing of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill continues to move at snail’s pace, which is noted as one of five demands of the “24th June Democracy” Group (กลุ่ม24มิถุนาประชาธิปไตย) earlier today. The people must use their democratic right to demand that the police move beyond a punitive, medieval approach and its blatant attempts to cover up for their own. The more the people push for this, the harder it will be to ignore. 

Thirdly, reforms need to address the needs of the community. The main goal of policing is not supposed to be punitive– it is to keep the community safe. And, indeed, who do you call when the police are the ones putting the people in danger?

For the common people, the police are the first point of contact with the law and the criminal justice system. The police set an example and show them that their rights will be respected. Therefore, police should therefore be adequately trained and competitively selected to ensure that they, like other public servants, put human needs first. 

The stark contrast of this principle with reality is frankly depressing. 

However, I end on two cautiously hopeful notes. One, a video as abhorrent and as impossible to ignore as this may not fade from the nation’s consciousness anytime soon, like how George Floyd’s death has been remembered. Perhaps this will be a true impetus to reform. Two, if this video was truly released by a whistleblower, then there are people in the system that can save it from within. These people must be protected at all costs. And perhaps in the future, the police force can be made up of more people like that. 

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