Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s Police On Trial

After a series of high-profile scandals, public trust in the country’s police force has dropped to an all-time low.

Indonesia’s Police On Trial

Police officers fire tear gas during clashes between fans at a soccer match at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java, Indonesia, October 1, 2022. Panic following police actions left over 100 dead, mostly trampled to death.

Credit: AP Photo/Yudha Prabowo

A recent series of scandals has rocked the Indonesian National Police, known in-country as Polri, with a televised courtroom drama threatening to further erode trust in a force known for endemic corruption, violence, and cronyism.

The first such scandal broke in July, with the news of the shooting of Nopryansyah Yosua Hutabarat, known as Brigadier J, the 27-year-old bodyguard and driver of Inspector General Ferdy Sambo, the head of Internal Affairs for the Indonesian National Police and a two-star general. When Hutabarat was found dead at Sambo’s home, it initially appeared as if he had been the victim of an accidental shooting, before the case gripped the nation amid talks of a widespread police cover-up, “missing” CCTV footage, and rumors of murder.

Hot on the heels of the Brigadier J case, which had already become a talking point about the police use of violence, Sambo’s wife Putri Candrawathi, and three of their staff were arrested on suspicion of Hutabarat’s murder, 135 people died in a stampede at a football match at Kanjuruhan Stadium on October 1 in the city of Malang in East Java. The tragic incident occurred after riot police fired tear gas onto the pitch and into the stands, which contained women and young children, causing mass panic.

In the ensuing stampede, spectators were crushed underfoot or suffocated by the teargas as they tried to evacuate the stadium, which had some of its exits locked even though the football match had already ended.

Usman Hamid, the head of the human rights group Amnesty Indonesia, told The Diplomat that the Indonesian public is “now waiting for law enforcement institutions to be held responsible and it must go beyond administrative sanctions,” following the two incidents, which both point to a police penchant for excessive use of force and indefensible violence.

In the Brigadier J case, the public was given a taste of any potential justice when both Sambo and his wife were brought to court in Jakarta on October 17 to have the charges of premeditated murder read to them by state prosecutors, who alleged that Sambo fired the fatal bullet into the back of Hutabarat’s head. One of Sambo’s junior officers and former bodyguard, Richard Elizier, has since become a “justice collaborator,” telling police that Sambo ordered him to shoot Hutabarat first because the latter had allegedly sexually assaulted his wife.

Over 97 officers from different branches of the police have been questioned about potentially helping to cover up the incident, some of whom have been transferred to different departments or fired from the force altogether. Sambo was dishonorably discharged in September for his part in the scandal, which is widely considered one of the worst cases of police corruption in Indonesia’s history.

Of the tragedy at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, during which Indonesian police and members of the military were filmed kicking spectators who had run on to the pitch and beating them with batons before firing tear gas at them, Hamid said that this was hardly an isolated incident and that police accountability remained elusive.

“Police are rarely charged and tried for excessive use of force while police leadership often says that they will evaluate such incidents. The Indonesian police unfortunately have a long track record of excessive use of force, including the misuse of ‘less-lethal weapons’ such as tear gas and water cannons, particularly in the last few years,” he said.

“Previous incidents indicate that police officers too often use tear gas and other forms of force as their first choice, not as a last resort,” he added. “This points to a general culture of excessive force among police that needs to be addressed.”

Hamid said that, in 2020, Amnesty Indonesia verified 51 videos depicting 43 separate incidents of violence by Indonesian police during protests against the Omnibus Law on Job Creation that occurred between October 6 and November 10.  These included the improper use of tear gas and water cannon, such as officers directly firing tear gas canisters into narrow spaces and deploying water cannons at very close range.

According to the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute, at least 52 people died at protests in 2019 alone, with few of these deaths ever being prosecuted in court. During post-election demonstrations in Jakarta in May 2019 in particular, Amnesty International said that it received credible reports of a range of violations by police, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the excessive or unnecessary use of force against protesters and bystanders.

“So, what’s been happening is no real change as the incidents just continue to recur. The government should show its commitment, way beyond the meeting in the Presidential Palace,” said Hamid.

On October 14, President Joko Widodo called over 500 Indonesian police officials from all over the country to the presidential palace to reportedly express his displeasure over the recent incidents, banning them from bringing mobile phones, assistants, and police attributes including ceremonial canes.

On the same day as the meeting at the palace, a joint independent fact-finding team that had been put together following the stampede at Kanjuruhan Stadium released a 124-page report that alleged that the police erased CCTV footage at the stadium and that the use of tear gas had caused deaths. Three senior police officers have been stood down from the force in the wake of the scandal and 18 police officers who fired tear gas canisters are being investigated.

The Indonesian police has long had a reputation for corruption and brutality and has been undergoing what has been termed a self-guided institutional reform since the fall of President Suharto in 1998.

Under Suharto, the Indonesian police were known for cronyism and heavy-handed policing practices, which more recent presidents have tried to address with mixed success and with the creation of bodies such as the National Police Commission (Kompolnas) to bring about more accountability and transparency. But when the military receded during the era of reformasi that followed Suharto’s fall in 1998, Polri was granted additional duties and powers.

Judith Jacob, the head of Asia for the risk and intelligence company Torchlight, told The Diplomat that “most observers of Indonesian politics would say that the police have been able to operate with huge impunity since reformasi. With the military sidelined – at least initially – from public life, the police, rightly, became the core institution for internal security.”

As a result of this, public support for the Indonesian police has wavered. In August, the local polling agency Indikator Politik Indonesia found that despite the lack of public trust, there appears to have been little appetite on the part of successive governments to check the newfound power of the police, which has generated opportunities for widespread corruption within the force. Jacqui Baker, a lecturer in Southeast Asian politics at Murdoch University in Perth, said that there has been “an absence of any real reform” within the force in recent years.

“We have a broken police force,” Baker said, in reference to the recent transgressions. “There is an absence of police reform in Indonesia because we have a deeply politicized police force and political elites who want the police to stay this way. These incidents speak to that political pact,” she added.

A recent indication of this is the fact that Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has appointed a number of former police officers to high-ranking posts during his two terms in office.

“Jokowi has been reluctant to crack down because he has built these close relationships with senior leadership to compensate for his lack of ties with the military,” Jacob said.

According to Jacob, these political challenges are “compounded by the fact that policing is fundamentally difficult to do well at the best of times and they are struggling with poor pay, limited training – what training is undertaken is highly militarized – and never facing consequences when they do something out of order so there is no feedback mechanism for learning or improving practices.”

She added that the problem of police violence and accountability is not unique to Indonesia, with questions raised worldwide about excessive use of force and lack of sanctions against those who are meant to serve the public good.

“To be fair, look at the London MET or the U.S. police – reform is difficult; politicians have little incentive to expend political capital on this issue and the institutions are willing to adopt a siege mentality and pretend all actions are justified as they are allegedly keeping citizens safe,” Jacob said.