Tragedy of Errors

The 23rd of August 1896 was a significant event in Philippine history, and regarded as the starting point of the Philippine revolution against imperial Spain.  It was known as the Cry of Pugad Lawin (Balintawak).  The hills of Balintawak, Quezon City are witnesses when Supremo Andrés Bonifacio and his comrades from the Katipunan tore their cédulas.  This event is annually commemorated as National Heroes' Day, a public holiday in the Philippines.

Fast forward 114 years, a rainy day on 23 August 2010, glaring on television: a hostage-taking incident ended in carnage!  Many victims bloodied, with 8 hostages dead--all Hong Kong nationals--making it an international incident.  The hostage-taker, an ex-cop erstwhile S/Insp. Rolando Mendoza likewise died with many bullet wounds.  He only had one demand: that of being reinstated again to the police ranks--very ironic, using crime as a ticket back!  I think the authorities should have given in to that demand, which is much easier to grant than if he asked for $10 million cash.  On-going investigations now say the government actually was doing that, but intervening events prevented that from pushing through, and they took a lot of time.

How could the authorities bungle such a thing?  It makes you feel angry and embarrassed, and think about that loss of life!

By law it's Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim who is tasked to solve the crisis, together with the local district commander, which was C/Supt. Magtibay.  While watching the events unfold on live TV, it's obvious the negotiations failed miserably, and they failed to second guess Mendoza.  While being questioned, the assistant negotiator said that he could have subdued Mendoza, but one standing order was "not to harm" the hostage-taker.  I don't have to mention that the assault team (SWAT) was unprepared!  With those many hours lost, they failed to put eyes inside the tourist bus.  It's very dangerous to blindly attack the enemy!  They are blaming the lack of equipment, but such electronic or fiberoptic gadgets are very cheap nowadays.  And why is the media broadcasting what the police are planning and doing?  They failed in the most basic things like crowd control, which includes the media.  I'm sure if the cops told the journalists to back off, they would have followed.

Other police personalities that should have asserted their authority were Dir. Santiago (Magtibay's superior and in-charge of the national capital) and D/Gen. Versoza, chief, Philippine National Police (PNP).  If C/Supt. Magtibay did not misread the situation, he could have asked the NCRPO to take over, and allow the more experienced Special Action Force (SAF) deal with the stubborn hijacker.  It could have been a different outcome.

Many other details happened but I guess it's best to wait for the official report, which I hope is credible and thorough.

Expert Notes

Charles Shoebridge, a security expert has made some observations on this issue.  He has worked for counter-terrorism operations in the British Army and the Scotland Yard.  Here are Shoebridge’s primary talking points on this event:
  1. Determination — The first officers who tried to storm the bus were driven out by gunshots from the hostage-taker.  Assault squads must "be made up of very special people, specially trained and selected for their characteristics of courage, determination and aggression.  In this case they acted as 99% of the population would have, which was to turn round and get out. They didn't seem to have the necessary determination and aggression to follow the attack through."
  2. Lack of equipment — The police spent a long time smashing the windows of the bus, whereas explosive charges (known as frame charges) would have knocked in windows and doors instantly. "They had no ladders to get through the windows. They smashed the windows but didn't know what to do next.  They almost looked like a group of vandals."  Their firearms were also inappropriate -- some had pistols, some had assault rifles.  Ideally they would have carried a short submachine gun, suitable for use in confined spaces.
  3. Lost opportunity to disarm the gunman — There were numerous opportunities to restrain the gunman.  "The negotiators were so close to him, and he had his weapon hanging down by his side.  He could have been disabled without having to kill him."
  4. Lost opportunity to shoot the gunman — The video of the drama also shows there were occasions when the gunman was standing alone, during the course of the day, and could have been shot by a sharpshooter.  "You are dealing with an unpredictable and irrational individual.  The rule should be that if in the course of negotiations an opportunity arises to end the situation decisively, it should be taken."  Either this possibility did not occur to the officers in charge, or they considered it and decided to carry on talking.
  5. Satisfying the gunman’s demands — "I wondered why the authorities just didn't give in to all of his demands.  A promise extracted under force is not a promise that you are required to honor.  Nobody wants to give in to the demands of terrorists, but in a situation like this, which did not involve a terrorist group, or release of prisoners, they could have just accepted his demands.  He could be reinstated in the police -- and then be immediately put in prison for life for hostage taking."  The Philippine authorities did in fact give in to the gunman's demands, but too little, too late.  One message promised to review his case, while he wanted it formally dismissed.  A second message reinstating him as a police officer only arrived after the shooting had started.
  6. Televised proceedings — The gunman was able to follow events on television, revealing to him everything that was going on around him.  This was a "crucial defect in the police handling."  The police should always consider putting a barrier or screen around the area, to shield the scene from the cameras and keep the hostage-taker in the dark.
  7. No element of surprise — It was clear to the gunman what the police were doing at all times, not only because the whole incident was televised, but also because they moved "laboriously slowly".  The police did not distract him, so were unable to exploit the "crucial element of surprise".
  8. Safeguarding the public — At least one bystander was shot, possibly because the public was allowed too close.  The bullet from an M16 rifle, as carried by the gunman, can travel for about a mile, so preventing any risk of injury would have been difficult, but a lot more could have been done.  "When you saw the camera view from above, it was clear there was little command and control of the public on the ground."
  9. Using the gunman’s brother to negotiate — Relatives and close friends can be a double-edged sword.  While they may have leverage over the hostage-taker, what they are saying cannot be easily controlled.  In this case, the gunman's brother was included in the negotiations -- however, at a certain stage he became agitated and police started to remove him from the scene.  The gunman saw this on television, and became agitated himself.  According to one report he fired a warning shot.
  10. Insufficient training — In some parts of the Philippines, such as Mindanao, hostage taking is not an uncommon occurrence, so the country has some forces that are well trained in the necessary tactics.  The group involved in the incident clearly was not.  After smashing the windows, one of the officers eventually put some CS gas inside, though "to what effect was not clear".  A unit involved in this work, needs to be "trained again and again, repeatedly practising precisely this kind of scenario".

Present State of the Philippine National Police

The Philippine National Police (PNP) is the police force of the Philippines, providing all law enforcement services throughout the country. It was activated in 1991, resulting from the merger of the Philippine Constabulary and the Integrated National Police.  It is a noble organization with noble goals.  As an organization, it has many problems, and many of these are self-inflicted.  It's good to ventilate these problems in public so as to find solutions.  Reform may be slow in coming, but as long as something is being done to solve the problems, the citizens should be content.  For an organization to be viable, it must learn from its mistakes, and rise immediately after every fall.

There are around 135,000 police personnel, allocated to administrative work and operations, with a work shift of 12 hours (not the usual 8 hours), and on-call 24/7.  Two thousand officers are assigned to secure VIPs, excluding those assigned to mayors and governors throughout the land which may come in hundreds.  The problem is that even the police's logistics are utilized especially by legislators and cabinet officials--vehicles, communications equipment, guns, etc.  The effective police-civilian ratio then becomes 1:900, very far from the ideal ratio in first-world countries.

This practice of using the cops as private security should end!  They should hire protection agents from private security agencies for this purpose.  PNP personnel should not be used as building security guards; logistics should not be touched by these VIPs.  But if the police would not give them security, their budgets will be delayed if not slashed, donations will not be given, and officers for promotion will be blocked.  Politics is to blame.

Perhaps another issue is the enforcement of vehicle traffic laws, again depleting needed personnel.  Managing the traffic situation is not primarily a police duty.  The various local governments (including the MMDA) should take care of this problem, in tandem with appropriate national offices, particularly the LTO and DOTC.  Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg, and many more problems are bugging the organization.

And sometimes the problem lies in the lack of creativity of the different police commanders in different corners of the country.  The botched hostage crisis 2 weeks ago was blamed on the lack of appropriate equipment and training.  Money is available (just scrutinize their budget) but they didn't purchase the items.  Are the commanders just that lazy to conduct training exercises?  The Philippines is a vast training ground already.  Security people from first-world countries come here to train!  Obviously we have the knowhow, we just left our brain in the closet.

There is hope, there is change...

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." ~Joseph Chilton Pearce

No comments: