Rosario talks with Mirror editors in an exclusive interview.

Sometime in 2015, just as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, then still the Mayor of Davao, was to embark on his "listening tour" for federalism, a published article dwelt on the so-called extrajudicial killings. The article was an offshoot of an exclusive interview with a senior police official, who gamely offered his own take on the issue. Resurgent reprints the story in full as its readers continually search for balanced views in these, our acrimonious times.

Two things lay imprinted in my head following our marathon talk—that word’s appropriate considering we began mid-morning and ended up past noontime—with our Face-to-Face guest last week: Police Chief Superintendent Wendy Rosario.

One, that crime volume declined across the region (a commendable 34 percent for theft alone for this  period compared to last year). And two, that he had initiated a new community vigilance project right smack in the largest police district in the city, Sta. Ana.

That the crime rate has fallen over the years has been the standard assertion of local executives. How else explain the accolade upon accolade that the city has earned since the previous decade, not the least among which being the Most Liveable City in Asia? City Hall, local law enforcement officials, even the media, have chimed time and again that Davao has finally become competitive, thanks in no small measure to its hard-nosed campaign against criminality.

Yet any talk of Davao’s peace and order ultimately strays, like a bullet, into the controversial issue of extrajudicial killings.

The killings, widely held to have been carried out by the shadowy Davao Death Squad (DDS), sounds old hat for the jaded. But the allegations endure: Rights groups claim to have recorded that between 1998 and 2008, more than a thousand people, purportedly suspected of having committed a crime, either disappeared or were killed outright, often in broad daylight. Few arrests, much less convictions, were made.

Couldn’t more assailants be apprehended and held accountable for the deaths? the Mirror wanted to know. 

Rosario said their hands were tied by the lack of witnesses and the sheer absence of evidence that would stand in court. The contention seemed sensible, if regrettable, if not for society’s own tacit approval for exterminating crime suspects. Amnesty International, no less, as well as other reputable groups, have scored officials, in uniform or otherwise, for failing to stem the “impunity” demonstrated by the DDS.

Yet even such high-profile interventions eventually fizzled out against the intransigence of a public silently content with the predictability of civil order. (The DDS and its campaign were actually unable to bring down misdemeanours, according to Human Rights Watch; in fact, it argues, the killings “appeared to have exacerbated crime rates in the city.”)

Be that as it may, the city’s claim as an investment and tourism destination, a far cry from its Wild West reputation in the 1970s-1980s, holds true. More than P6 billion were plunked in last year by private businesses, mostly coming from property developers. In 2013, some 1.4 million tourists, about the size of Davao’s population, visited the city and, with their consumer spending, helped propel the local economy. 

Not correlating the bullishness of city living and the strictness of law and order may indeed border on the naïve. 

Which may be why, instead of talking dead bodies, Rosario seemed to prefer discussing his community relations brainchild, Hapsay Sta. Ana.

The project, piloted in the downtown area that encompasses some of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods, aims at addressing street crime by building trust among the residents. This entails social development approaches as well as the old, reliable method of being one with the community in facing a common enemy. Eventually, it is hoped, grassroots intelligence will engender more capture of street thugs, which in turn will lead to more guilty verdicts. 

Rosario says the strategy is working. And although it may be too early to reap solid gains, the move to blend into the social fabric to fix its wounds and gashes holds promise: the City of Tagum has recently followed suit.

In his critically-acclaimed book, “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that when one changes the social context, people’s behaviour follows. Gladwell recalls that, at one critical time when New York was ridden with crime, its officials made use of the so-called broken-windows theory. This held that if subways were scrubbed clean of graffiti and broken windows were repaired in a symbolic effort to stand up to crime, people would start respecting and obeying the law. 

Eventually, trust and collaboration between police authorities and the public strengthened, which led to the “tipping point” of a dramatically decreased crime rate.

The debate on the DDS may rage on. And police generals like Rosario may hem and haw at the interminable suggestions of procedural lapses, at the very least, in explaining why the death squad has thrived to this day. But he has a potential gem in Hapsay Sta. Ana and the broader challenge of replicating it across the region. Managed properly, this may well be his crowning achievement. (Mindanao Daily Mirror)