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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2002

City said plagued by crime, bad cops

Panel seeks ways to make streets safe, clean up Osaka force's act

Staff writer

OSAKA -- With the release of statistics that show Osaka leads the nation in crime, police and community leaders have formed a panel to propose legal changes to deal with the problem, including the addition of more officers.

But critics familiar with Osaka police warn that low moral and poor professional standards are responsible for a rash of police crimes and human rights abuses, and that little will change until the force itself is reformed.

At the end of 2001, Osaka earned the dubious distinction of being No. 1 in purse-snatchings for the 26th year in a row. The prefectural force reported nearly 10,500 snatched purses over the year, or 21 percent of the nation's total.

Late last year, private- and public-sector city leaders, concerned that high crime rates would scare visitors away from Universal Studios Japan and damage its campaign to promote Osaka as an international tourist center, agreed to tackle the problem.

A committee consisting of local lawyers, academics, labor and business leaders, PTA representatives and social workers was formed in September to study ways to reduce street crimes and recommend legal and administrative changes. It compiled a report two weeks ago and will collect public comments until the end of the month.

The report begins by noting that Osaka police responded to over 250,000 criminal complaints in 2000 ranging from illegally parked cars to murder. The total, 41 percent higher than a decade ago, made Osaka the worst city for reported crimes for the 26th year in a row.

"We looked into the causes for the high crime rate and came up with five fundamental reasons," said Osamu Maeda, president of the Rengo Osaka trade union group and a member of the committee.

These include a general public apathy, a lack of parental supervision at an early age leading to higher teen crime rates, poor lighting at parks and roads, the city's narrow winding streets, the availability of high-tech devices to pick car and home locks, and what the panel called the "internationalization" of crime in Japan.

"Like elsewhere in Japan, the number of crimes committed by foreigners is on the rise. In 2000, about 70 percent of the 1,900 cases of breaking and entering (into cars, businesses and homes) were committed by foreigners," said an Osaka police official who wished to remain anonymous.

Rengo Osaka's Maeda said he believes another major reason is that uniformed police are not seen on patrol as much as in the past.

"Police have become like salaried workers, not wanting to get involved if they think it's some other department's responsibility," he said.

Police, in turn, say that they have only 20,000 officers to control a prefecture of 8.8 million people. And only a small percentage of them are actually on the streets.

The prefecture hopes a bill being debated in the Diet that would increase the number of police officers by about 20,000 nationwide will give Osaka about a quarter of that total, if passed.

Yet many in local business, government, and the media doubt whether hiring new officers will be effective.

At the committee's first meeting in October, Gov. Fusae Ohta blamed the city's problems on the police force's low moral and poor standards. The comment has sparked an angry debate between the police and the governor.

But revelations of crimes and misdeeds by police since then have added credibility to Ohta's charge. In November, two Osaka police officers, a man and a woman, were caught during a raid on Culture Club, one of Osaka's largest sex-swapping clubs. The two were not arrested because they were not caught in the act.

On Dec. 25, a Suita, Osaka Prefecture, policeman was suspended for shoplifting.

Finally, under pressure from the media and local citizen groups, Osaka police admitted that 32 officers were reprimanded between January 1999 and September 2001 for offenses ranging from stalking to stealing women's underwear and sending lewd e-mail messages.

For Kenji Yamamoto, a former member of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly and the author of a book on corruption within the Osaka police, the incidents were not surprising.

"Police officers today lack moral standards," Yamamoto said. "They have become disgruntled bureaucrats, uninterested in the community as a whole and frustrated at a promotion system that emphasizes paper tests results over practical experience, and their frustration can vent itself in socially unacceptable behavior."

Tomoyoshi Emura, head of an Osaka Bar Association committee that monitors human rights abuses, said a mere increase in officers will not lead to greater public safety or higher morality.

"Adding more police officers without making them aware of the laws regarding the rights of those who are detained is not likely to lead to a safer city, and could add to public distrust of the police," he said.

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