A Rotten Cop Reminds Us Police Reform Urgently Needed

Thai police escort the former police officer Thitisan Utthanaphon, known as "Jo Ferrari", while leaving the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

You need to be very optimistic to still maintain hope on the Thai police force, particularly after having seen the torture to death of a drug suspect captured on video followed by a dramatic press conference of the killer-cop after he turned himself in.

Rashomon or no Rashomon, the  9-minute video clip which surfaced on Tuesday showed then Nakhon Sawan Police Chief Pol Col Thitisan Uttanapol and half a dozen of his subordinates suffocated a 24-year-old drug suspect to death by applying six layers of hoods over the man’s head.

This took place at the police station and Thitisan was heard shouting “where’s the goods” as his men fetched more plastic bags to cover the victim’s head until he became unconscious and dead. The last bag was black. 

Fast forward to Thursday night, or two days after the arrest warrant was issued, Thitisan turned himself in and participated in a dramatic press conference via telephone which was presided by no less than National Police Chief Gen. Suwat Jangyodsuk himself.

In a reframing of the crime, Thitisan said he killed the 24-year-old suspected drug dealer unintentionally.

What about the six layers of bags applied over the victim’s head? According to Thitisan, it’s done so the suspect drug dealer wouldn’t be able to see who’s trying to force him to confess about the whereabouts of the hidden cache of drugs. Thitisan also flatly denied he tortured the man for 2 million baht extortion money as earlier reported by the local press.

Thai police escort the former police officer Thitisan Utthanaphon, known as “Jo Ferrari”, while leaving the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

“I just want to eradicate drugs from Nakhon Sawan province,” said Thitisan, who owns two large houses in Bangkok and 29 cars including some made by Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini and Bentley.

We must admit that Thitisan and his men must be considered innocent until proven guilty by the court. It’s hard to stick to the principle after having seen the graphic video clip of him and his men taking away a man’s life, however. To be fair, towards the end of the clip, after the victim became unconscious or dead, one of Thitisan’s men tried to revive the man by splashing a bucket of water to his head and when it didn’t work, others tried to revive the poor man through administering CPR but to no avail. 

In a sign that Thitisan and the police force tried to reframe the former Nakhon Sawan police chief as a well-intended cop who committed an unintentional ‘mistake’, little has been heard about the junior police officer who bravely took the CCTV video clip and gave it to a lawyer to expose the men. I don’t recall the national police chief praising the whistle blower and many fears the anonymous and honest cop’s life might be in grave danger right now. But again, some said there was no real low-ranking and  well-intended whistle blower. People like former massage parlour King Chuwit Kamolvisit insisted on Friday that the leaked video clip was driven by conflict of corruption interests. If Chuwit was right that someone influential from the police simply wanted to get rid of Thitisan because he wasn’t generous enough to his colleagues, the whole affair is truly sinister. Also,  there was no police record when the victim was first arrested   earlier this month and after he died, police wrote that he suffered from methamphetamine overdose.

Thai police escort the former police officer Thitisan Utthanaphon, known as “Jo Ferrari”, while leaving the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

Thitisan, who’s also known as “Joe Ferrari” for his fancy sports car, was definitely not the first nor the last to have tortured a drug dealer suspect. In the Deep South, many suspect Thai-Malay separatists died while in custody over the years under suspicious circumstances. No such CCTV video was ever leaked.  

If Thai society cannot turn this deeply disturbing case into a case for genuine police reform, then there’s little hope left for the Thai justice system.

An anti-torture bill has also yet to be passed despite years of efforts and one wonders why. Basically, torture is not yet a crime in Thailand. This simply encourages more torture and enforced disappearances. We may not be able to weed out all the corrupt and murderous cops and Thitisan may end up facing a much lighter sentence than many had hoped, but the push for police reform must continue and Thitisan may be the best poster boy for the need to reform the Royal Thai Police not just for what we saw in the video clip but for what he tried to convince us afterward. To give up on police reform would be to give up on not just the Thai justice system but on Thai society itself.