I know what you are thinking.
Thai police uniforms are the last thing they need to change when police corruption is rife in the Land of Smiles. Right?
Think of “Joe Ferrari” who extorted and murdered a drug dealer in police custody by suffocating him with a garbage bag. (He’s now convicted to a life sentence, though will probably get out earlier.)
Think of policemen running illegal gambling dens and brothels. When caught, they are transferred to ‘inactive posts.’ When things quieten down, they miraculously return to their post.
Think of traffic police asking drivers for bribes.
And the list goes on.
So why the heck should I propose something as insignificant as a change in police uniform?
I have worked with the local police for a year or so. Do you know that they purchase their own handgun? Even their desks and the air-cons in their office are often patronized by their ‘sponsors’ (local businesses).
The junior officers we interact with at the station on the ground floor rarely have volition of their own. There is no ‘brainstorming’ session.’ “Hey boss I’ve an ingenious idea to catch criminals.”
Rather, the orders are given from their boss on the 2nd floor (the station chief), who after one to two years gets promoted and moves on to a bigger post elsewhere. The station chiefs are appointed while the junior cops stay in the local station.
In the police career, one will eventually come to an ‘invisible ceiling.’ Going beyond that point such as the police station chief requires what I term “C2” (Cash and Connections).
Importantly, the junior officers deal with all sorts of cases daily – from tourists losing their passports, car accidents, and bar customers not paying their bills to online scams, brawls, and suicides.
Police are the first line of defense in any civil disorder. For instance, when your neighbor is having a brawl, you neither call a military general in the barrack nor a doctor. You call the police.
Some cases were so petty I couldn’t believe my eyes until I saw them. One Chinese lady tourist wanted the police to help her track down her sneakers.
Another case – a depressing one – is an American old man with a mental illness. Apprehended, he slept in jail, then went to court. The court put him in Suanprung psychiatric hospital. He is then released, still unstable. I contacted the US consulate, who couldn’t get in touch with the man’s family back home and wasn’t willing to pay for his flight home. The old man was consequently stuck in Chiang Mai, broke and helpless, with an expired visa.
When I was on duty, I have had a police officer say to me
“Edward, you cannot help him/her. It’s beyond our control. Just let it go.” The work can be emotionally draining, so one needs to be detached from the job to an extent.
With the police force facing so many structural and systemic problems, with so many politicians promising police reforms year after year and failing, big changes are almost impossible to accomplish. So, instead, I am proposing “micro-change” – changing at the edge, incrementally, starting from the smallest first.
On a hot sunny day on the road, do you notice the traffic cops wearing their long-sleeved uniforms? It must be unbearably hot for them.
Which I why I’m proposing short-sleeve shirts for the cops like their counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. The short sleeve is not only more suitable in a hot and humid climate, it’s also more people-friendly and approachable.
The same can be said for tourist police. When they are patrolling in tourist areas, mingling with the locals and tourists, polo shirts and short-sleeve shirts are more suitable. And please go easy with the badges and signages. Police uniforms aren’t fridges with magnets on them. It shouldn’t be about “Look how many badges I have. I’m awesomely powerful!”
It should be “Hi, how can I help you?”
We want to give the impression of Thailand being the land of smiles. Not the land of thugs and intimidation, right?
Thai banks and many Thai firms have Fridays’ casual dress policy. Why can’t Thai cops have it too? I don’t mean they come to work wearing singlets, shorts, and beach sandals ready for a pool party. I mean in their polo t-shirt or short-sleeve shirts where they can work more comfortably.
The larger point is that we first need to be aware that 90% of Thai cops are working-class people. They are just trying to do their job as best they can, given the constraints around them. I know a policeman whose wife is a street food vendor. Both sleep in the police apartment next to the station. Both are doing their best to make a living. On his days off, he drinks like any of us.
My take-home message: Small incremental changes are better than no change.