The High Cost of Badly Paid Cops by Christopher G. Moore

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To understand in any meaningful way a police force requires information about the culture in which the police are recruited, educated, paid, promoted, and disciplined. In a recent Bangkok Post article highlighting the suicide statistics among Thai police officers, it was noted:

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“At present, the force is divided into two distinct classes — the bosses who graduated from the Police Cadet Academy and junior officers from schools for corporals. The classes operate in an oppressively feudal and closed society where subordinates have no say whatsoever. Due to their low pay, the police tend to get involved in all sorts of underground businesses.”

There are the bosses and then there is the vast underclass that carries out their commands. The division is officially designated as between commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Source: http://www.aseanapol.org/information/royal-thai-police The national police force is a quasi-military organization that comes under the Ministry of Interior. Source: Wiki Senior appointments by the government have been routinely been controversial. For years there have been many studies, commissions and reports delegated with a mandate to recommend reforms. The members of these study groups and commissions have recommended a variety of reforms to the structure and culture of the Thai police force. But no substantial reform program has been implemented from these recommendations.

The size of the police in Thailand exceeds more than 230,000 officers according to Wiki. By comparison with countries with the same or larger populations: the UK has 167,318; The Philippines has 149,535; Myanmar has 93,000; and France has 220,000. In other words, in Thailand, there are by international standards, a relatively large number of police to the size of its population. In 1987, Thailand had 110,000 members in the Royal Thai Police Force. It would be interesting to analyze the political processes that resulted in more than a doubling of the police force over a quarter of a century.

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The statistics and brief background fail to convey the day-to-day reality of the non-commissioned rank-and-file police officer. Who is this man or woman behind the uniform in Thailand? What story can we tell about the ‘self’ behind the uniform?

“We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves. Research by the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self (2005), suggests that these narratives guide our behaviour and help chart our path into the future.” Source: http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/where-do-childrens-earliest-memories-go/

The police training and culture are material out of which that self is constructed. Another block of ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-image’ is the economic conditions in which a person lives, works, and interacts with others. The sense of self also takes a battering in Thailand where many people view the police with a sense of mistrust and suspicion. This likely causes the police to withdraw further into their own sub-culture for emotional and psychological support further increasing the feeling of ‘us and them.’”

The inequalities of wealth are experienced by police officers like anyone else. Unlike the rest of us, the police are authorized to carry guns and to use them inside such societies. And where there are businesses that operate at the margins of the law and those outside the law that are hugely profitable, policing by cops who don’t have a living wage can be compromised with cash payments.

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This chart shows the pay scale for police. The first three columns are the salaries of non-commissioned officers and the other columns for commissioned officers, with the last two columns reserved for those with the highest-ranking officers.

Unless you are a non-commissioned, column 1, Thai cop who entered the police department with a high school education you are paid after four years on the job (assuming no additional step increase beyond the usual annual increase). a salary of Baht 5,580 per month or US$177.42 a month. That works out to be 183 baht or just under $6 bucks a day. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay for a book that promised: accommodation, food, transport, sidearm, uniform, haircuts, food and entertainment in Thailand on a budget of $6.00 a day. The minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht a day, which is closer to $10.00 a day. While there are possibilities to supplement the meager pay packet with per diems and overtime, the overall monthly amounts paid to police are, as the chart demonstrates, small.

If officers are appointed to a position, such as inspector, chief inspector in suppression or forensic units they receive an additional 3,000 to 5,700 baht, or if they are investigation officers (regular to expert) they receive an additional 12,000-30,000 baht, in executive positions (5,600 – 21,000 baht) or special expert/teaching positions (3,500 – 15,000 baht), increasing with rank. As is evident, the chance for supplemental pay is limited to the higher ranks with officers who’ve received specialized education or training. Typically a university graduate would start as an officer with a higher pay.

How could there not be corruption in a police force when the pay scale for non-commissioned officers condemns them to poverty? A man or a woman faced with a spouse and children waiting food on the table and doesn’t have the money to feed them can easily cross ethical and legal lines on a routine basis. If you were in that position, what would your consciousness tell you to do: feed your family or ask for a 100 baht from a driver who made a turn out of the wrong lane? It might be assumed (and it is impossible to prove with solid evidence) that the division of spoils falls mainly to the benefit of the high-ranked officers. Such a lopsided division would be consistent with how money flows between the ranks inside any feudal based organization. No one has ever suggested that egalitarian principles feature large in such a mindset. In a feudal structure, like the police, most of the workforce can be thought of as extras in the larger drama and there is only room for a few of the big names on the marquee. The rank, status and money is, in the main, set aside for the stars.

There are also psychological and social consequences arising from a police force modeled on a feudal structure. Most of these issues have not received serious attention by any of the many recent governments. One is the suicide rate among the rank and file police. The Bangkok Post reported a story about such an officer.

“On Wednesday, 24-year-old Police Lance Corporal Nitikorn Kulawilas shot himself in the head with a pistol and died at the Phaya Thai police station. The young traffic policeman was the fifth officer to take his own life since January.

“If the average police suicide rate per year is anything to go by, 25 more families may lose their beloved son or daughter this year.

“According to the Police Department, the number of officers taking their own life is steadily on the rise. The annual average number of suicides over the past five years is 29.17. Last year, it rose to 31.”

Suicide rates have been in decline in Thailand since the peak of 8.4 per 100,000 in 1999. Source: Hanging is the most common method to end one’s life, and is ten times more prevalent than a handgun. The police officers rate of suicide works out to be about double that of the suicide rate for the population as a whole.

What is it about being a cop that increases the odds of suicide? The dead officers superiors explained the suicide as caused by work stress and family problems. In other words, the suicide had nothing to do with the culture and the low pay environment in which he worked. This is the kind of denial that isn’t restricted to the attitude of his superiors. The explanation is based on a widespread perception that when an officer is caught stealing or aiding and abetting a crime, or kills himself, that is wholly the individual responsibility of the officer.

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It is this consensus that explains that despite all of the recommendations for reform, the continuation of a current system that hugely benefits a select few should consider the collateral damage that drives officers to crime and suicide as incidental, personal, and individual to the man or woman who felt they had no other choice.

What mental health screening and counseling is done for police officers? I can’t find any answer to that question. I suspect that silence is significant. Suicide rates are only one small sampling of those with mental health problems. Rates of depression should be examined and the results made public. The rate of divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, or drug abuse is additional indicators of personal stability problem worth exploring.

Suicide rates of police officers compared to the rate for the general population have been analyzed in the States. The American police officer is statistically more likely to kill himself (or herself) than a Thai police officer. (Source)  There is, and likely never will be, any clear, unbiased or unambiguous set of statistics to support the premise that low pay is the cause of suicide amongst police officers in Thailand. One needs to accept that some of these suicides may have occurred no matter what job the person worked at, and needs to be viewed along with mental problems such as depression, assignment to high anxiety areas such as the South of Thailand, family or domestic violence, separation and divorce.

The Bangkok Post hammered a point that has been over the years but the political will to change the culture of the police has failed. “But an honest and efficient arm of the law is not possible if low pay, poor welfare, and a lack of unaccountability and meritocracy remain the norm.”

The correlation between low pay and the hidden economy is difficult to establish as the data is largely inaccessible and must be drawn from stories in the press. All that can be said from a common sense point of view with no set of viable statistics to back it up, is the low salaries paid to a number of police (certainly there are honest, not corruptible Thai police as I’ve met some of them) are likely subsidized by other opportunities that are only available to a man or woman in a uniform and carrying a gun. The question is whether there is the political will to change the salary and policing culture in Thailand.

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