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Japanese Cops Admit Faults

September 17, 1999

TOKYO (AP) _ Three were gropers. One used compromising photo negatives to try to cajole a college student into having sex with him. Others have been accused of shoplifting, taking drugs, beating up colleagues and even leaving a man to die in his car.

All were cops.

Revelations over the past few weeks of the slew of crimes committed by police _ and alleged cover-ups by their superiors _ have swollen into the worst scandal to hit Japan’s police forces in years.

And with emotions high after a summer marked by an unusual number of high-profile crimes _ including Japan’s first fatal hijacking and a knifing rampage that left two dead and nearly a dozen others injured on a crowded Tokyo street _ the timing of the scandal couldn’t have been worse.

``Police are no different from gangsters. The just wear uniforms,″ said Junko Hirai, a middle-aged shopper in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district. ``I don’t trust them. They are corrupt.″

The allegations of police wrongdoing center on Kanagawa, a prefecture (state) just south of Tokyo, where newspapers discovered an officer was fired in December for taking photo negatives held as evidence and trying to force a woman who appeared in them to pay him off and have sex with him.

Reports soon followed that two sergeants from a nearby precinct were secretly dismissed in 1997 and 1998, one for allegedly molesting a woman on a train and the other for shoplifting at a hospital.

As if that wasn’t enough, Kanagawa police last week admitted that they were investigating five officers accused of using loaded guns, handcuffs and electric shocks to haze rookie colleagues.

``The public’s confidence in the police has been deeply shaken by these recent incidents,″ said an editorial in the Yomiuri, Japan’s largest newspaper. ``Police should remember that hiding the truth may keep things quiet on the surface, but only at the cost of allowing the cancer below to spread.″

Of course, not all of the bad apples are in Kanagawa:

_Two officers were fired earlier this year in Tokyo after admitting that they fondled women in public. One groped a junior high school girl on the street, and the other pawed a woman on a commuter train.

_A 32-year-old officer in Kyoto, western Japan, was indicted recently for possession of amphetamines, which he said he used to battle on-the-job fatigue.

Police stress that with more than 260,000 officers nationwide, there are bound to be a few who go astray.

But the Kanagawa force’s handling of the current scandal has fueled criticism that police feel neither a responsibility to be honest with the public or to strictly discipline their own.

In the groping case, inspectors originally told the victim that the molester was an office worker, although they were aware he was in fact a police officer. The officer, whose name has not been released, was later fired. But he was never charged with any crime.

When asked about the officer who threatened the university student, a police internal affairs supervisor initially told reporters he had not taken negatives.

The supervisor later admitted the officer had taken the negatives, and was fired. Police are reportedly now considering whether to seek criminal charges.

As Japanese media shrilly pointed out, none of this information was made public until the stories were already breaking and police clearly had no choice but to defend themselves.

The need for accountability appears to be sinking in, however.

Kanagawa police chief Takeo Miyama gathered police officials together for a special meeting earlier this week, and acknowledged that mistakes were made.

``I deeply apologize to the people of Kanagawa,″ he said, bowing deeply.

But Miyama’s vow to restore the public trust may prove a very difficult task.

As the chief was rallying his troops, fresh allegations hit the papers accusing two police officers in Kanagawa of leaving to die a man who had just suffered a heart attack.

According to the reports, the officers saw the man slumped over, assumed he was drunk, moved his car to the side of the road and left. The man died 11 hours later.

Miyama has since offered to resign.

Update hourly