Why Thailand will never have Robocops

How do we weed out the Joe Ferraris of our police force? Maybe it’s time police face elections? (Read: accountability)

By | Mon 30 Aug 2021

I once had a chat with a former police officer, who now runs his own small business. Mincing no words, he told me that when he was a cop, one of his legs was figuratively in a prison cell. He had to do ‘grey things’ for his superior for many years. Despite his hard work and loyalty, he felt betrayed that he would be passed over on promotion time and again. On top of this his boss would send him to distant small-town posts, far from his family, leaving him little chance for career progression. As he put it, he didn’t have “mojos” (aka cash and connections) to secure a promotion. Disheartened, he quit the police force.

In listening to his story, I sympathised with him. Indeed, for every one officer promoted, there are hundreds around the country who won’t make it, simply because they lacke mojos. To get mojos requires you find alternative sources of cash. Which usually means committing semi-legal or illegal activities.

With the case of “Joe Ferrari” – the police officer who allegedly extorted and killed a drug dealer in custody, along with falsifying his cause of death; it didn’t surprise a lot of people. Many Thais I have spoken to shrugged their shoulders and replied “Nothing new there.” For me, however, the shocking thing was that the crime was brazenly committed in broad daylight at a police station (technically a cafe-turned a back office), with a CCTV recording every second. There are two kinds of crimes. One committed secretly, in the dark, away from prying eyes. Hush hush. The other committed in broad daylight – no different from strangling someone in a Starbucks packed with customers. The latter is disturbing because it screams “I’m above the law.” Or indeed “I am the law.” It’s this carefree nonchalant attitude that concerns me. The normalisation of extortion and torture by police officers. Just another day of work for them.

Another well-known incident was a police officer’s son, a partygoer, who killed a cop in a Bangkok nightclub in 2001. He fled abroad and eventually returned safely, after witnesses withdrew their statements. The justice system had ground to a halt. Why? His father was a senior police officer and a politician in the government coalition of Thai Rak Thai, the predecessor of today’s Pheu Thai party. (It helped the son too that he was a sub-lieutenant in the Thai army.)

Let’s assume that Joe Ferrari’s case was just the tip of an iceberg. This creates a very pervasive incentive in drug law enforcement. Once caught, the drug dealer can simply pay off the police as a “get-out-of-jail-card”. Paying off cops in exchange for freedom is like paying taxes in the drug business. A small price for selling methamphetamines. The police, too, are eager to let the drug dealers off, as they want “regular income” as opposed to a one-off extortion. Worse is if the police become business partners with the dealers.

In Joe’s case, he allegedly smuggled in luxury cars from Malaysia, reported them as stolen or ill-gotten cars, and received his commission for what was supposed to be his duty. Again, perverse incentive is at work here. The 20-45% commission regulation caused the entrepreneurial Joe to get creative.

To be sure, this isn’t a witch hunt of bad cops. Most cops just want to do their work in earnest, and go home at the end of the day. Their wives typically work too to support their families, like running a street food or groceries store. Law-abiding expats don’t get harassed by police on the street like they do in, say, Vietnam. My close friend is a police officer – a family man with children. One day he told me he couldn’t do what his ambitious peers were doing, and able to go home and look his daughter in the eyes. While his colleagues received promotion to lucrative positions, he was content with his position. It was an active decision he’d made.

Let’s be real. My US expat friend in Chiang Mai told me that in America if two cops bust into a drug dealer’s house and find $5 million dollars cash along with heroin, they will most likely skim $1 million and report the $4 million figure to their superior. Welcome to reality: Corruption happens everywhere from the 1st world to the 3rd world. However, a huge difference between the US and Thai justice systems is that if a government officer/civil servant is found guilty, they are disgraced for life. Fired. Jailed. No pension. And zero chance of getting “reinstated”, unlike in Thailand’s playbook. With the US officers, swift and severe punishment serves as a potent deterrence. Indeed, no one can demonstrate this behavior better than the organisation’s leader. How a leader conducts himself/herself will be copied throughout the chain of command. Take General Colin Powell –former US Secretary of State – whom I respect. He fought in the Vietnam war and rose through the ranks to become a four-star general through merit and integrity. (Having said that, I personally disagreed with the Iraq invasion.)

Broadly speaking, justice cannot and will never be served when it is trumped by tribal loyalty, deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche as well as in many developing nations’ mindsets. Of course, the “mojos” factor plays a large role too.

“Raise their salary” I hear you say. Although it’s true that Australian and American officers are better paid than their counterparts in Thailand (average salary $70,000 vs. $13,000, respectively), it’s not really hitting the bull’s eye as my close police friend said. Simply put, the crux of the problem is not putting the right man in the right job. Promotions are not based on merit. Nor are they based on the leader’s ethical conduct.

Each police station boss is like a ‘mini-lord’ ruling his fiefdom, who answers to his province’s superior, who in turn, answers to the region chief, who is answerable to his boss in Bangkok, and so forth. This pyramid structure is very much a winner-takes-all, where each police station boss has power over his officers and enjoys most of the perks under his jurisdiction. Embedded in the structure is the culture of impunity. This was the case of Joe Ferrari who headed Nakhon Sawan city station as Police Colonel. Since the leader in each level of the pyramid has disproportionate power, here is my (lateral-thinking) solution: Police election. Start at the national level, then provincial level, through to city level. Only police officers will cast a vote. After all, you want to work for a boss whom you respect, admire, and who is impartial – not appointed then after a year gets promoted to a more lucrative province. In this way, some of the power will be shifted to junior officers making up the bulk of the police force.

What has this to do with Robocops? If there were Robocops, extortion, bribe acceptance, and indiscriminate killing would cease. We, humans, would programme them to: (1) Serve the public trust, (2) Protect the innocent, and (3) Uphold the law.

Or indeed, programme into them with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
1st law: A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.
2nd: A robot must obey the orders given by humans except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3rd: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first two laws.

So, why will Thailand never have Robocops? Because powerful incentives and greed will ensure that the lords in the upper echelon will continue to resist reform. The party is just too great up there. With a 40,000 baht ($1300) monthly salary, how else could Joe afford a Ferrari, let alone own over 30 luxury cars?