Jacqui Baker – The last half of 2022 has seen the Indonesian National Police (Polri) beset by a series of rolling scandals that have exposed police negligence and brutality to the world.
On 8 July, Indonesian media reported the curious death of junior police officer Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat in an alleged shoot out with officers at the home of head of Police Internal Affairs, two-star General Ferdy Sambo. Within days, it became apparent that Yosua had in fact been tortured and executed, in a deepening conspiracy that ultimately drew in Sambo's wife, his driver and no less than 97 other police officers.
Then on 1 October, as Indonesia reeled from daily revelations in the Sambo case, came the tragedy at Kanjuruhan Stadium. At Kanjuruhan, Indonesia witnessed the horrific spectacle of Brimob anti-riot police and Malang Police firing tear gas into a peaceful stadium of families and children. Hundreds were injured and 135 people died, including 40 children – likely because of tear gas poisoning, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has said. Police flouted numerous basic, international safety standards in crowd management, causing the worst disaster in Indonesia's sporting history and second worst in the history of association football worldwide.
The disgraces of the past few months have focused public attention on the police institution, generating calls for reform, even from President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. But kneejerk demands for "reform" obscure the fact that Polri has been explicitly engaged in democratic police reform for more than 20 years now, beginning with the institution's separation from the military in 1999 and the passage of a new Law on the Police in 2002.
Before calling for more "reform", it is important to address what recent scandals tell us about the nature of police power and, more importantly, about the kinds of political contestations that are taking place in and around the police.
First, both Kanjuruhan and the Ferdy Sambo scandals speak to the sheer depth of police impunity. Sambo is currently on trial, just three months after Yosua's murder. Police regulations stipulate time limits for criminal investigators, with the maximum of three months for "highly complex crimes". Yet, despite a cast of dozens of implicated police officers, the police investigation report for the Sambo case hit the prosecutor's desk in mid-August, just five weeks after the day of the murder.
Such efficiency is a privilege not extended to the 142,000 detainees sitting in pre-trial detention across Indonesia. The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation has noted that police routinely extend pre-trial detention, in violation of criminal procedure. The speed of the investigation suggests police want Sambo's case over as soon as possible, without too many more surprises.
Impunity has also been on show in the wake of the Kanjuruhan tragedy. The criminal investigation is being led by the East Java Police, whose Brimob colleagues took the decision to fire tear gas into the crowd. In the week following the tragedy, East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta, and the Malang Police Chief Ferli Hidayat were both rotated to desk job positions. While this initially seemed a fitting punishment, both officers are now parked at Polri Headquarters in Jakarta out of the glare of the public eye.
While the Presidential Palace unsuccessfully road-tested blaming stadium infrastructure before being shouted down by a grieving public, the investigation named three police officers as suspects – a Brimob commander, and the heads of patrol and operations at the Malang Police, relatively low level positions. These officers have been blamed for giving the police ranked below them discretion over whether to use tear gas. But the equipping of the officers with tear gas in the first place, in violation of Indonesia's own sporting standards, was undoubtably the responsibility of the provincial and district police chiefs.
Further demonstrating Polri's impunity, the criminal investigation has proceeded in the face of credible allegations of witness harassment by the Malang Police, with some 18 people now in witness protection. Cause of death has also become a key battleground for police, who fear autopsies could confirm that victims died from inhaling tear gas. Families who consented to the exhumation and autopsy of victims have been subject to relentless police intimidation such that all but one have withdrawn their permission. The only family member to reinstate consent is the father of Natasya (16) and Naila (13). Their exhumation was guarded by hundreds of officers from the Malang Police.
Why do the police enjoy such impunity, particularly after 20 years of so-called institutional reform? Some of that impunity is baked into the Police Law (Law No. 2 of 2002). This Law places Polri directly under the president, who on account of being the head of state, evades the burden of ministerial responsibility. This leaves the police functionally autonomous. Successive presidents, including Jokowi, have showed little interest in pressing for democratic police reform.
Moreover, the 2002 Police Law provided for the establishment of a National Police Commission (Kompolnas), originally conceived as a public oversight body for complaints about the police. But it has been wholly co-opted by the executive and Polri Headquarters, and now effectively serves their public relations needs. True to form, in the days after Kanjuruhan, Kompolnas strenuously defended the police chief, arguing that "procedure had been followed".
But institutions are only part of the problem. The core issue is the relationship between police and political elites. Police impunity is the prize in a long-standing pact with political elites who have no interest in an accountable law enforcement system that upholds a democratic rule of law. Why would they? A corrupt police force is the perfect accompaniment to the existing corrupt political party system, an easily harnessed instrument to silence critics, repress opposition, shut down rival party slush funds and bring potential challengers into the fold. In this way, police are central to the organisation of political competition, manufacturing a system of "electoralism" rather than genuinely contested democratic elections.
Second, these scandals also tell us something significant about the nature of the political contestation occurring within the police. Both the Ferdy Sambo and Kanjuruhan scandals have been accompanied by a flurry of revelations that have seriously deepened Polri's crisis. The weeks after Yoshua Hutabarat's murder saw a torrent of leaks that implicated Sambo as the head of a task force, the so-called Red and White Command (Satgassus Merah Putih).
Formed in 2019 by then Police Chief Tito Karnavian, the task force was an organisational fix for the police chief. His formative career was built in the anti-terror squad Densus 88 and he came to power on a thin support base within the traditional police command structure. This shadow organisation allowed Tito to quickly form crack teams from hundreds of highly trained investigators to deal with complex cases, such as the riots in Jakarta in May 2019 following the official announcement of the presidential election result. Reporting by tirto.id and Project Multatuli has suggested that officers linked to the Red and White Command have been instrumental in harassing activists and criminalising protesters.
A second set of revelations alleged that Sambo headed up an illegal online gambling consortium, otherwise known as Konsortium 303, an allegation later confirmed by gangland figures. These leaks took a specific form: they were accompanied by detailed network charts, replete with photographs of network hubs and brokers, including a range of supporting officers. Such documents are the signature style of investigators within the Red and White Command, but because they are internal documents, they rarely include pictures of police. Let alone headings like "Kaiser Sambo", as Sambo was apparently known. The documents appear to have been drafted to be leaked.
A similar set of dynamics are now unfolding in the wake of Kanjuruhan. Less than a week after his transfer from the West Sumatra Police to East Java as the new provincial police chief, Teddy Minahasa Putra was arrested, allegedly for taking five kilograms of methamphetamine from the Buktitinggi evidence locker and selling it on. Last week, a low ranked former Samarinda Police officer, Ismail Bolong, said he had wired Rp 6 billion, apparently obtained from bribes from illegal coal miners in East Kalimantan, to Polri Criminal Investigations head General Agus Andrianto.
These shocking disclosures are unprecedented. They are coming hard and fast and are aimed squarely at the top brass of the police elite. The point here is not whether Sambo led these two shadowy networks, or that police are involved in the illicit drug trade. Both facts were already widely known within the police and political circles. The point is, why is this information being leaked now and in whose political interest?
Within the police is it widely believed that the leaks are being generated by police factions allied to Budi Gunawan, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) powerbroker, former police general and longstanding head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN). Gunawan has long been Polri's "second sun", fingering promotions, establishing a rival "Pejaten faction" (referring to the location of the BIN offices) and directing the police's repressive powers towards enemies.
Within the KPK, Gunawan is widely believed to have been instrumental in the national legislature's hobbling of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the installation of his man, Firli Bahuri, to take the helm, and the shameful blacklisting of the KPK's best and most principled personnel. Critically, Gunawan has provided Polri loyalists with access to the spoils of the state, through appointments everywhere, including in state owned enterprises and even as acting governors. By contrast, Jokowi's mediocre pick for national police chief, Listyo Sigit Prabowo, does not command these kinds of resources.
As such, these leaks and attacks should not be seen as ideological struggles that can be characterised in simplistic terms of democracy vs authoritarianism. That the attacks have targeted some of Polri's most powerful and lucrative positions – the head of the East Java Police, the head of Criminal Investigations (Kabareskrim) – speaks to a reign of terror. This reign of terror seems designed to eat away at the confidence of police elites close to the current police chief, and by association, Jokowi.
Jokowi has insisted Police Chief Listyo Sigit still has his support. But ultimately the leaks suggest a spat within the ruling political coalition over how the wider regime of law enforcement will use criminalisation and coercion to reshape the political landscape. As Jokowi hurtles towards the final years of his tenure, and PDI-P's stratagems to maintain government loom closer into view, securing control over the police is critical. Police reform is dead. It's political reform that Indonesia's democracy needs.