MANILA, AUGUST 17, 2006 (STAR) By Eden E. Estopace - If you believe newspaper reports that crime statistics are down, you belong to the innocent few whose sense of security has not been ripped by a knife pointed to your neck in a daytime holdup, or traumatized by house burglars, car thieves, and motorcycle-riding snatchers.

Admittedly, it is a tough time for the police force and tougher still for ordinary citizens plodding on in an increasingly unsafe world.

For the man at the helm of the country’s premier police academy, his position is most unenviable. Sitting on top of an institution mandated to educate the country’s next generation of police officers is a huge task, a responsibility that no one would probably covet given the runaway crime rate, the poor image of the police force and the meager resources allotted to police education.

Though battling street crimes and improving the image of policemen are not his concerns, still the burden of molding young cadets to become efficient police officers who will one day inherit the problems of criminality and public safety in this country is a mean challenge.

In an early morning interview at Camp General Mariano Castañeda in Silang, Cavite, PSS Balligi Agnayon Tira, director of the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA), says that the country’s premier police academy is not producing enough graduates to supply the Philippine National Police (PNP) with well-trained public safety officers.

Ideally, he says, the ratio should be one police officer to 500 civilians, but the PNP today has to make do with only around 120,000 police officers all over the country.

The PNPA, he explains, operates within a limited budget and can accommodate less than 300 students per year. The freshman class that came in this year and will graduate in 2010 is composed of 290 young men and women carefully selected from a large pool of 25,000 applicants all over the country.

"Obviously the interest is there but we have to make do with what we have," Tira says.

The challenge, he explains, is maximizing the use of limited funds to deliver the best possible education to those who are admitted to the academy and hope that these few would make a difference in police service and serve their country well after graduation.

The 60-hectare Camp Mariano Castañeda in Silang, Cavite, home to the PNPA since 1993, has complete facilities for police training, including a crime laboratory where students learn the rudiments of analyzing blood stains and fingerprints lifted from crime scenes, a crime scene plaza where crimes happening in the streets are simulated, and a firing range where students improve their markmanship.

According to Tira, the curriculum is heavy on discipline, leadership training and community relations.

"Police training is different from military training in the sense that we focus more on maintaining peace and order in the community, while military training is concerned with handling external security threats at the national level like rebellion or foreign aggression," he explains.

During the summer months, PNPA cadets also get extra training in the police sciences with strong focus on "knowing the enemy, thwarting the enemy and techniques of enemy interception."

Obviously, the four-year course is tough; getting admitted is one thing and finishing the course is another thing all together. But since education at the academy is free and comes with a monthly stipend and an assured job after graduation, most cadets do make it to graduation and drop out rate is minimal.

Tira says the government roughly spends P250,000 per year for every cadet in the school. Thus for the four years each cadet spends at the academy, the total investment for every cadet is roughly P1 million. In return, they are required to serve the government for eight years before they can move on to other jobs or career paths if they so choose. However, Tira says most stay to become full pledged police officers.

PNPA cadets graduate from the academy with a Bachelor of Science in Public Safety. After graduation, they are deployed to the three branches of police service–the PNP, the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). Under the law, 85 percent go to the PNP, 10 percent to the BFP and five percent to the BJMP.

Last March, only 167 PNPA graduates were deployed to these three branches, with the entry-level rank of Inspector.

Every year, the number of new police officers joining the police service from the PNPA is complemented by around 500 lateral entrants–college graduates who enter the police service as non-commissioned officers–to beef up the core of the police force. Unlike their counterparts from the PNPA, however, they start with the rank of patrolman or Police Officer 1 (PO1)

Is it possible for non-commissioned policemen to rise to the ranks of Inspector?

"Yes," says Tira. "Given the right training, education, performance and achievement while in the service, a patrolman can be promoted to the rank of PO2, PO3, Senior Police Officer 1 (SPO1), SPO2, SPO3 and SPO4 before becoming an Inspector."

Like the tradition in the military, PNPA graduates clearly have the advantage and thus have the chance to rise to the position of director general with a four-star rank, although traditionally the top position in the PNP is usually given to a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).

Despite the advantages in training, education, and government incentives regularly given to those who are still in school and those already in the service, why does the public still perceive of police officers as corrupt, inefficient and largely inutile in solving crimes?

"That is what we are valiantly trying to address here at the academy," says Tira. "Our mission is to provide comprehensive training to cadets who will one day become public servants, not liabilities to society."

The difference between theory and practice is actually huge that the PNPA’s primary challenge is to narrow the divide between the idealism inside the campus and the system that swallows their graduates once they join the ranks.

Because of this, the PNPA management under Tira’s leadership has adopted a radical approach to police education.

"We believe that God has a place in the police force," he shares. "We believe that if we do not produce public safety officers who are God-centered, we fail in our mission."

A renewed Christian himself, Tira explains that more than imparting skills to their graduates, they now give more emphasis on values education. By putting God at the center of the academy’s mission and vision, the PNPA director hopes that they will also be able to mold God-fearing men and women who will serve the public to the best of their abilities.

"The kind of belief we want our graduates to imbibe is that crime is an effect of sinfulness, vice is a sin towards yourself and other people. What then can you expect from a sinful life?" he says.

At PNPA today, character formation is so crucial that punishment for those who are caught cheating, lying or committing violence against fellow cadets is stiff.

"Outright dismissal for those who cannot tow the line," says Tira. "That is the only way we can prove that crime does not pay and that even here at our level, we do not tolerate wrongdoing."

At the academy, Tira says they discuss life and its purpose, fear in a higher being and respect for fellowmen. He clarifies though that while he is preaching the Christian ethos of "loving God with all one’s heart and soul and loving one’s neighbor as oneself," he does not exclude other faiths.

"We encourage our cadets to practice their religion. We give them time on Sundays to go to church and attend service. We believe that a time for worship is important in character formation," he says.

When Tira assumed office as director of the PNPA many years back, he says that his lone request was that he be allowed to use the word of God inside the campus to help cadets learn to live a life of integrity.

In his daily life in camp with the 700 cadets housed in the barracks, Tira has to deal with a lot of issues such as hazing, student cheating, rigged contracts, petty quarrels and other violations that school administrators usually face.

Tira is one person who does not mind the perception of people, fully aware that the bad eggs in the police force are more the exceptions than the norm and believing that reforming the police force and police education will happen one step at a time.

He admits though no matter how the PNPA drums up the time-honored codes of discipline, honor and excellence, there will be people who will choose the wayward track.

"You cannot force ‘heaven’ on people. You can only help them see the light. Here at PNPA, we strive to instill values in their formative years but, in the end, it is a personal decision," he says.

"I admit that I too was a crooked man. But somewhere along the way, the Lord changed my life. If it can happen to me, it can happen to other people as well. We say to our cadets, what kind of policeman would you like to be? We have done our part, the choice is yours."

It is not true, says Tira, that those who are admitted in PNPA are flunkers from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). "It is the general perception but the truth is most people who apply at the PNPA also apply at the PMA. It is just that the PMA releases the results of the exams earlier. So, if they are already assured of a slot at the PMA, they grab it. But in most cases, most of those who pass the test and the screenings at the PMA also pass the PNPA test. There are also cases when an applicant chooses the PNPA over the PMA," Tira explains.

Unknown to many, PNPA applicants have to hurdle a formidable battery of tests, including physical and medical exams and neuropsychological tests.

"We ensure that we accept only those who are mentally, emotionally and psychologically fit for police work," he says.

In the last two years, the PNPA has raised the age requirement for applicants. Instead of high school graduates, admission at the PNPA is now only open to those who have at least reached second year college level.

"This is because we like our prospective cadets to be more mature and psychologically fit for police training. There are even college graduates who apply for admission at the academy," he says.

A case in point is PCI Gabriel Chaclag who is now the administrative officer at the Director’s office of PNPA. Chaclag already had a Bachelor’s degree in Biology when he was admitted at PNPA in 1993. He belongs to the pioneer batch who graduated at the new campus in Camp Castañeda in 1995.

"I originally wanted to be a doctor. But after finishing my pre-med course, financial constraints hampered me from pursuing medicine proper. So, I decided instead to apply at PNPA and become a police officer," he says.

After serving in the UN mission to Kosovo, Chaclag chose to go back to the PNPA to serve his school and help mold young cadets.

Tira shares that aside from those who are deployed to the police service, a number are recruited back to teach or to do administrative work at the PNPA, like Chaclag. "This way we ensure the quality of instruction and share with our cadets what they have experienced in the field."

As it is now, the school has many projects to accomplish, foremost of which is the construction of new barracks to comfortably house its 700 cadets. "What we have is an old Marcos-type barracks constructed more than 30 years ago. We really need new facilities," Tira says, adding that the academy is actually open to private funding if it would mean they can accommodate more students or improve facilities in aid of instruction.

But as Tira always says: "One step at a time." The more important concern today is for the academy to train cadets who will one day be assets of the community and contribute to nation building.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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