Photo by R. Rekotomo for Antara.

As President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo approaches the end of his time in power, the failures of police reform and continued abuses of human rights by police threaten to seriously derail his desire to be remembered as the “infrastructure president”.

The Indonesian National Police (Polri) has been under the public spotlight for months, beginning with the shocking and high-profile murder of a low-ranking officer, Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat. The head of Polri’s Professional and Security Division (Propam), Inspector General Ferdy Sambo, allegedly masterminded the murder.

The Sambo case has seen the public’s opinion of the police nosedive. While the National Police previously ranked among the most trusted Indonesian institutions, recording approval ratings above 70%, an Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) survey in October saw public trust fall to just 45%.

This survey was conducted after Polri attracted global attention for its brutal actions at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java on 1 October. An independent fact-finding team formed to investigate the tragedy concluded that the police’s use of tear gas was responsible for the deaths of 135 fans.

While these two cases have attracted public scorn, the sad reality is that repressive police actions routinely result in Indonesians losing their lives. Even when such cases are reported to bodies like the police’s internal security division, the National Police Commission (Kompolnas), the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), or civil society organisations, police rarely – if ever – face serious sanctions. At most, they receive minor administrative sanctions, or experience delays in promotions. It is no wonder that police feel they can continue to act with the impunity they have enjoyed for so long.

In fact, 10 years ago, police used tear gas on supporters at the Gelora 10 November Stadium in Surabaya, resulting in one supporter dying and 20 others being wounded. And between 2005 and 2015, the Indonesian National Violence Monitoring System recorded 11,431 incidents of police violence, resulting in 1,358 deaths, and 13,265 injuries.

Likewise, just in the period July 2021 to June 2022, civil society organisation KontraS recorded 677 cases of police violence, up from 651 cases the year before.

The police’s propensity for violent and repressive action is often blamed on lack of appropriate regulations and limited police knowledge of human rights. But there is plenty of evidence that neither of these are the real problem. For example, Article 2 of the Police Law (Law No. 2 of 2002) states that policing must be implemented with consideration of human rights, the law and justice. The police also have two internal regulations (Police Chief Regulation No. 8 of 2009 and Police Chief Regulation No. 1 of 2009) that require police to respect and uphold human rights in their duties.

Likewise, police are provided with human rights training early in their training process, a practice that was in place even before the passage of the 2002 Police Law. Komnas HAM has also trained police in human rights-responsive policing, and a range of local organisations and foreign donors have supported the police to adopt community-oriented policing approaches.

These programs were implemented with the hope of changing Polri’s militaristic culture and supporting the development of a more democratic and less violent police force, but they haven’t worked.

The roots of the problem

In her PhD dissertation, Dr Jacqui Baker stated that Indonesia’s democratisation process, which was closely associated with reform of the security sector, resulted in little more than a reorganisation of the state’s coercive apparatus, rather than any real demilitarisation.

As a result, democratisation and separation from the military simply led to Polri becoming a political actor, and one with the teeth to act to improve its own position. Writing for Indonesia at Melbourne, Baker recently stated that police reform was “dead” because political elites have no incentive to reform the institution.

In other words, the failure of police reform is not because of previous experiences with authoritarianism, or democratic countries having a legacy of militarism. Rather, the problem is that democracy often provides little electoral incentive for politicians to prioritise police reform.

The problem of authoritarian policing persisting under democracy is not unique to Indonesia. Scholars have also documented the failures of police reform in democratic Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador. There, the segment of the community that is wealthier and can mobilise politically is often in favour of a more repressive police force. Politicians therefore tend to want to maintain the status quo unless their voters make it very clear that they want a more democratic police force.

A similar pattern can be observed in Indonesia. Citizens who worry about crime tend to support a repressive police force, believing it will provide a deterrent effect. In Tangerang, for example, residents have supported police shooting robbers dead. Similarly, no mainstream Muslim organisation – which could be a significant force in pushing for police reform – spoke out against the police shooting of six supporters of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) on a toll road in late 2020. Most criticism of police violence has come from civil society organisations, which unfortunately have neither mass membership nor significant political influence.

Moreover, politicians tend to support police violence because they believe it will satisfy community anxiety about security, and will help to ensure they are seen as firm leaders. To take just a few examples, President Jokowi has previously expressed support for police shooting drug dealers, and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil and lawmaker Ahmad Syahroni have both said they supported extra-judicial killings of burglars.

Likewise, Sana Jaffrey has found that the rise of vigilantism in Indonesia (known by the phrase main hakim sendiri) has occurred not because of weaknesses in law enforcement or lack of police power to maintain security. Rather, vigilantism is cheap and satisfies community needs in ways that the formal legal system does not. What’s more, vigilantism is often seen as “complementary” to police violence, because police often provide vigilantes with impunity.

This impunity is seen by the police as a way of maintaining good relations with the community, and helps “normalise” repressive models of law enforcement. Police have even offered “rewards” to vigilantes. The presence of high levels of vigilantism in the community makes it much harder for citizens to take a zero-tolerance approach to police violence – or even criticise it.

Opportunities for reform

The Sambo case and the Kanjuruhan trajedy have provided an opportunity to again look seriously at police reform, because the majority of the public believe the police acted excessively and inhumanely at Kanjuruhan.

On 14 October, Jokowi called all senior police to the Presidential Palace, reprimanding them and reminding them not to flaunt their wealth or engage in petty corruption (pungli). Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo repeated similar statements.

But these tentative measures are nowhere near enough – they do not touch the roots of the problem. It is true that Jokowi’s administration has relied heavily on support of the police. But he remains sensitive to public opinion. He should therefore take much firmer action to overcome challenges of police reform if he wants retain current levels of public support.

To begin reform from the outside, Jokowi could act to ensure a provision preventing torture is included in the revisions to the Criminal Code (KUHP) now under discussion in the national legislature (DPR).

Second, Jokowi needs to strengthen oversight of police performance. The existing National Police Commission (Kompolnas) has no investigative powers; its role is mainly limited to clarifying internal police procedures. He could form a new external body to complement the role of Kompolnas and the police’s internal mechanisms. It is vital that any such body is not staffed by former police or political party officials, to prevent conflicts of interest. It should also be strong enough to take action against even the police chief if he breaches codes of ethics.

But even if these two measures are adopted, the police will not automatically transform into a democratic and less violent force. Serious and longer-term work also needs to be done to reform police finances. This is needed not only to ensure police have sufficient operating budget, but also to crack down on the police’s many non-state sources of funding.

These “off-budget” funds have become a major impediment to a professional and clean police force. Jokowi or the next president could support cleaning up police finances by involving the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the State Audit Agency (BPK), as well as civil society organisations like Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) and Indonesia Police Watch (IPW).

Donors and civil society organisations also need to reassess any efforts to strengthen the capacity of police. They might have succeeded in encouraging police to adopt human rights regulations, and include human rights in their training programs but police actions in the field are still not even close to consistent with human rights principles. Perhaps donor money could be better spent on educating the public about the importance of a democratic police force and increasing public pressure for reform?

It is important that donors approach the issue of police reform holistically. Too often they want to work on a single issue, like policing in the context of religious minorities, or policing hate speech. These kinds of narrow programs run the risk of further contributing to polarisation in society – the last thing Indonesia needs now.

The Indonesian community must be firm and united if it is ever going to convince the police – and politicians – that the time for police violence is over.


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