Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Jeff Martin's Presentation on the Police -- Swenson's Breakfast Club

The Swenson's Breakfast Club/Meet Up this month featured the usual suspects, plus many new faces. Attendance appears to be on the increase. Great fun was had by all, and we managed to learn something too.

The highlight of the morning was Jeff Martin, a newly-minted PHD fresh from the University of Chicago's Department of Anthropology, who gave a talk on Taiwan's police. Jeff's talk was sympathetic, informative, detailed, funny, and useful, setting a standard for any future presentations that will be difficult to match.

One of the great things about the presentation wasn't just the high quality of Jeff's work and the accessible way he presented it, but also the fact that audience consisted of people who all knew quite a bit about Taiwan. It was a privilege to sit in with so many well-informed and experienced Taiwan expats, all talking to each other about topics of vital importance to our experience of the Beautiful Isle.

Jeff was introduced by Linda Arrigo. She observed that he had done fieldwork on how the police function in Taiwan by "spending three years drinking with them," coming back from the torturous and ever-changing world out there with a shipload of information that no one else understood. The police have two systems, Linda said -- the official system, and "the other one." It was our happy lot to listen to Jeff clarify both for us.

Jeff began with two simple questions: what do the police do? And why do they do it? It turned out that Jeff had to answer a third question: just who are the police?

According to Jeff, the transition from martial law to democracy has left no impression on the police. Why? Because Jeff was talking to the civil police, whose job description didn't change. Rather, martial law changed policing by "extracting the military from police work." The content of police work, from a formal perspective, has not changed dramatically from the end of martial law, and is based on the police law of 1953, amended slightly in 1986. "There's no smoking gun policy that shows that policing has become democratic whereas it used to be authoritarian," Jeff observed.

At this point Linda Arrigo remarked that it was still fairly authoritarian. True, Jeff answered, responding that what has actually changed was that the legitimacy of civil institutions is based on their upholding of civil rights in a democratic system -- the basis of legitimacy, the "hegemonic rhetoric" that underpins the system, has changed.

Who are the police? This is the central question to understanding what has changed since martial law ended. The police, formally defined, are those people who work for the Central Police Administration of the Ministry of the Interior, created in 1972, some 80,000 souls. Jeff briefly listed the twenty or thirty police organizations, maritime, border, railroad, and so on. The key distinction, Jeff argued, is threefold: between the judicial police, administrative police, and the staff who process paperwork.

This is the Continental system of criminal justice, profoundly different from the Anglo-Saxon system. Taiwan distinguishes between policeman who carry on police work, and policeman who are just administrative police.

What defines policing as a task? Jeff answered that the literature says three things: law enforcement, maintenance of public order, and provision of services. The police do a lot of things that are neither of the first two, Jeff said, such as answering questions or holding documents, for example.

Jeff's project was studying substations, your friendly neighborhood police office. The system in Taiwan is centrally organized. The national policy agency oversees departments in each county, underneath that are police precincts, and then finally, substations. Substations are where calls get routed to, and people are sent out to respond to citizen problems. Such people are classified as administrative policemen: thirty to forty to a substation, probably all men, females being a rarity at the moment. These policemen are the lowest ranking members of the police bureaucracy.

The system was created under the Japanese and has persisted through two very different regime changes, Jeff said. It's "completely entrenched," the substations having survived two attempts to get rid of them and create a more centralized system.

"So it's not a Qing Dynasty system," Jerome Keating interjected. "Absolutely not," averred Jeff. The Japanese "created the prototype for East Asian policing," Jeff stated. "This looks just like what they have in China now," Jeff said. "When the Chinese government decided to create a police in 1980 -- because it wasn't working to just not have any police -- they basically used this system." As we all erupted into laughter at the thought of China without police, Jerome asked where the system came from. The Japanese sent people out to survey all the police systems of the world during the Meiji period, and ended up copying the French and the Germans. They did make one "decisive difference" between the French and the Japanese system: the Japanese attached the local police to the household registration system. It was that act that defines East Asian policing. "The census system is the means by which the central government keeps tabs on every citizen," Jeff explained.

Where did that system come from? It seems that the household registration is modeled on colonial Hong Kong, according to a recent dissertation out of Chicago, Jeff said. The Japanese used a European colonial system in their own domestic governance. Since Taiwan was a colony, it made perfect sense to implement that system. It still remains in place, though it is much less intense.

The KMT left the system intact, and brought in new officers to oversee the junior policemen in the substations. The famous bao jia system actually was eliminated by the Japanese during the war in favor of another system that would bring everyone into the war effort more intensively. The only change the KMT made was to introduce a system of individual police beats, modeled on the American system. In this system the individual policeman is responsible for two blocks. "Those are his people -- he has their census records in his locker," Jeff described it. He is supposed to go visit them once a year and updated the records. If the policeman has to get his quota of arrests, he goes to the jurisdiction next door -- "you never want to disturb things in your own area," Jeff said with a laugh. When they discover a brothel or a chop shop in an area, the policemen who controls it is punished, Jeff said, since he is responsible for knowing everything about his district, including who the troublemakers are. "You can see the intimate relationships that might arise in such a situation," Jeff noted.

Policing is about administering populations at this very intense level, Jeff noted. He then asked us: how many people have ever had someone knock on their door to update the census records? Everyone chorused in the affirmative. How often does that happen? Not often. Jeff said that it had happened once in five years. In my own case it hasn't happened since I returned to Taiwan four years ago. Jeff said that every day the policeman is supposed to get two to three hours to update his records. However, in his three years of going around with the police, he went out once to update census records. Every year the police just copy last year's reports, and forward them upward. What this shows, Jeff observed, is that there is a huge divergence between what the police are supposed to be doing and what they are actually doing.

What do the police do? The police hun which Jeff translates as "hustling." "You get through the day," he said with a laugh. Several of us objected that hun meant to idle, to goof off, but Jeff said that they hun like the hsiao hun hun, the local hustlers. Understanding dawned.

Taiwanese substation policemen live a very difficult life, Jeff said, stressing the word "very." They live at the police station. They have a bunk in the back room and are on duty for 60 hours a week, minimum, 12-14 hour shifts separated by 8 hours of down time. If paperwork doesn't get done on shift, it must be done on the down time. The shift rotates around the clock and is not fixed as it might be in the States where long periods of night duty alternate with long periods of day duty. Jeff does not know why the system is that way, but observed that under such a schedule it is impossible for a policeman to have a normal life. You can't maintain relationships with the police unless you mimic that schedule, Jeff said, hinting at how physically wearing his work must have been. "You're on call all the time and never sleep. I got sick -- it's a physically horrendous schedule."

The policemen have several jobs. First, they have to update the census records. Second, they have to take care of the "Special Projects" invented by politicians, like crackdowns on drunk driving or street vendors in a certain area. How many of these special projects are there in force at the moment in Taipei county? Two hundred. "So there are two hundred things they are supposed to be doing especially intensely," he said, laughing. On top of that the police have to deal with the stuff of citizen complaints -- traffic accidents, crimes, etc.

In answer to a question, Jeff estimates that 50,000 of the 80,000 employees of the police agency are administrative policemen out doing this job. Originally there had been 50,000 civil police and 10,000 special police under martial law, but at the end of martial law, when the military was removed from police work, the police were expanded by 30,000 riot police. Under the old system there were about 50 serious crimes that fell under jurisdiction of the military police, including such crimes as murder and gangsterism, and military prosecutors thus had authority over the civil police.

Linda Arrigo pointed out that actually in 1990 and 1991 there had been an organization called Human Rights in the Police. The policemen had formed their own human rights organization because they were so abused by their political masters. Linda said that it had disappeared quickly, though. Jeff added that there had been another movement three years ago to start a police union, but it disappeared as well. The issue was the same, Jeff said. The police want to be a professional, civil police force outside of political influence, Jeff said, and there have been some very interesting movements.

The suicide rate among policemen, which is very high, became the topic of the next question, but Jeff did not have the statistics at hand. Someone then asked about the mainlander-Taiwanese issues in the police force. Jeff did his work in Taipei county, and he said that everyone spoke Taiwanese all the time, and thus, it wasn't clear who was who. Many people claimed affiliation with the KMT, he added, though they were Taiwanese. Aborigines are well represented in the police force, said Jeff, probably more so proportionally. One of the questioners again raised the problem of ethnicity, saying that locals do not want to be policemen because of the "glass ceiling" beyond which Taiwanese cannot rise. In the last few years Jeff responded, the top ranking positions have been closed to mainlanders. Things are "really confused" in the top levels, he said, referring to the ethnic issue.

Since the job has low social status, why do people become policemen? Basically, Jeff said with a grin, they told him because "they had failed their test," a reference to Taiwan's brutal testing system.

How to deal with the police? As Jeff described the process, if you call 119, the call goes to the county police station, and then they call up the substation front desk. The desk checks the duty roster, where there is a policeman assigned to patrol. Every call that comes into the substation is that guy's problem -- from beginning to end, that policeman has to see that case through. Either the case is resolved by mediation by the police, or it is transferred to the prosecutor's office, which happens if it is at all significant, within 24 hours. The police don't get involved in serious cases, Jeff said as an aside.

The patrol officer gets his call on the radio, and they should show up at your house in a few minutes and deal with your problem. "And they deal with it by making a report," Jeff said, grinning. "They rush to the scene of the crime and then write a report," he described, to general laughter.

After they write a report, they have a book with a sheet with receipts in three colors. The blue sheet should be yours. If they don't do this, Jeff said, you should take issue. As everyone who lives in Taiwan knows, the police "eat cases," make them disappear by losing or not doing the paperwork. The receipt system was introduced to help put a stop to this.

But if the cop won't issue you a blue receipt, what do you do? You pull out your cellphone and start riffling through your acquaintance network. You call your li chang or your lin chang, your borough or neighborhood chief, or any politician beholden to you, and tell him come to your address and argue with the cop, even if it is three in the morning. Their role is to get you the receipt -- or maybe not, Jeff said with a laugh -- depending on what you want out of the case.

Jeff pointed out that what this really means is that if you open a business that deals regularly with the police, you have to cultivate a close relationship with your local politicians so that you can use them to get out of bed anytime night or day to help you mediate your relationships with the police. "Using the civil bureaucracy in Taiwan is a political act," Jeff said, gesturing dramatically. "You have to cultivate relationships with politicians to get the juice to use what is supposed to be the autonomous civil bureaucracy."

This implies that the rule of law is not in effect, yet the rule of law is the basis of democracy. Jeff pointed out that you must have some kind of ideal of an encompassing civil order that is not on the table of political contestation, that in turns contains and mediates political struggles.

"You have to recognize that the policeman himself is just a pawn in this much larger political game," Jeff said. The policeman have no particular stake in the theft of your motorcycle, but somewhere above their heads is "some idiot who has said that if the crime rate goes up, I will resign." There is no way to effectively decrease the scooter theft rate, and no way to increase the recovery rate. The only way to influence the crime rate short of a miracle, is to influence the crime statistics. These become "very real political pressures," he explained, on the local substation commanders. "If your substation reports more than 15 motorcycles stolen this month, you are not getting a promotion." Essentially, Jeff said, laughing, this becomes "you have 15 motorcycle theft reports -- use them wisely."

This is a structural problem of the way the police get influenced by political forces. The police must constantly mediate between their superiors -- politicians, police commanders, and citizens.

Jeff offered another "ethnographic nugget." Usually people report cases by going into the police station in person, bringing with them family, friends, local politicians, people who know the substation commander, and so forth. The whole guanxi (connection) network is used. Thus, if you know that you are going to be at the police station a lot, you have a vested interest in maintaining a stable of relationships with important people. That's local politics in a nutshell, he said. "Black gold at the micro level."

What patrolmen are actually doing is trying to survive at this intersection of the formal policing system and informal political economy, Jeff said. Linda Arrigo then noted that policeman have to spend a lot of time with soothing people, with handling relationships, with paying people off. "Absolutely," Jeff agreed. "Graft is a structural problem. The substation policemen have no way to opt out of the system."

Jeff noted that the policemen he talked to said corruption has gotten worse since the end of martial law. The authoritarian system was stable, he said, but with the advent of democracy, lines of authority are less clear. He also said that the policeman told him the police have become more politicized as well.

As a scholar Jeff wanted to know why the police behave this way. He offered two possible ways to think about it. One way explained police behavior in terms of the cultural patterns of institutional behavior in Chinese society. The other, he explained, was the historical development of institutions in the society, to look at the cultural political context in which they evolved, which he said that it was a more productive way to think about the issue.

Questions began. Did you have trouble publishing in Taiwan? "I'm kind of waiting to get into trouble," he answered, laughing. Media and the police? Jeff didn't research that topic, though he said that the police are interested in the question of their relationship with the media. In the course of the discussion a fascinating incident was revealed: Jeff had been slated to present at a conference on the police in Beijing, and had been wiped off the schedule and accused of being pro-independence. Another highly intelligent questioner asked about cross district crimes, such as car theft and kidnapping scams. "These require a national coordination effort -- how does national policy handle this? How does it filter down?" Jeff answered that the criminal investigation bureaucracy handles this, not the administrative police. "Substation policemen are not about solving crimes," Jeff explained. They call the criminal investigators when they encounter a serious crime. There's a gap in the bureaucracy between the local police and the criminal investigators. The latter, Jeff added, is not very corrupt and are sincere in their attempt to solve crime. What is the Control Yuan's role in all this? Jeff answered that the question was fascinating -- five divisions of government, one of which is "control." How is that not enforcement? One listener responded tartly that it wasn't control because the Control Yuan hadn't done anything for fifty years.

The conversation then turned to the phenomenon of organized crime, and general discussion ensued of its social functions and behavior in Taiwan, Korea, and elsewhere.

The presentation was absolutely wonderful, jam-packed with information and insights. I look forward to Jeff's book, and to further wonderful presentations from the crowd at Swenson's on Saturday morning.

See you next time!


Anonymous said...

Great informative post Michael. This post and Linda Arrigo's post are two of my favorites.

Did Jeff mention anything about policy directions, how the situation might be improved?

Jason said...

Fantastic post. What was Jeff's take on Su Tseng-chang's gambit to lower crime or step down?

Michael Turton said...

Jeff didn't make any recommendations for improvement. I didn't ask Jeff about Su. But I had even less sympathy for Su than I before.


Anonymous said...

Apart from the fact that Jeff Martin's work is scintillating in terms of his findings and an audacious piece of ethnography in the sense that as a foreign researcher, he embedded himself with the local cops, Michael's description of Jeff's talk really does demonstrate the power of the blog for disseminating information.

Top marks to both of you ... we need more collaborative work like this in the wider 'Taiwan Studies' community!

Anonymous said...

Excellent stuff. To think Hinet was trying to stop me reading it!

I take it from your comment that you think Su will make matters worse ... general (probably justified) cynicism about politicians, or something else? I'm still vaguely positive myself - but perhaps that's just because I like Su.

I really must try to make it to one of these meetups, they sound great - I've been out of Taipei for the last two. Ho Hum, maybe next month ...

Michael Turton said...

I don't think Su will make matters worse, I just think these hyperbolic promises are ridiculous. "I'll resign from politics if the crime rate doesn't fall!"

Anonymous said...

Give Su's track record, I wouldn't call it hyperbole at all. If there were clear evidence that crime was still the same, I believe Su really would resign.

Now whether that's wise or not is a different story. But Su, I think the guy has character, even if the promise was a bad idea.

English blog-o-sphere oddly quiet on Chen-Ma meeting...

Michael Turton said...

Chen-Ma meeting? Sorry. I'm not a theatre critic. :).

I think it was the Hinet/Blogspot problem killed a lot of bloggers during the time when Chen and Ma were jawin'. I didn't realize I could still post for about 36 hours. I was also out with sunstroke all tuesday and wednesday too. It always happens to me on the first hot sunny day of the year.


maoman said...

This is the most interesting post on police in Taiwan I have ever read. Can you put me in touch with Jef Martin?

Henry said...

thanks Michael for senting the link, this is very interesting. I'll talk to Julian about the possibilities...


canopenergirl said...

Hi Micheal, thanks for your post. My name is Jacqui Baker. I'm a PhD Student at the London School of Economics writing an ethnography of policing in Indonesia. I'm interested in seeing more of Jeffrey Martin's work but I don't seem to be able to locate him. Would you know his email address? Thanks again for your help. By the way, I went to Taiwan last year, what a fabulous country!

Michael Turton said...


please contact me at my email address:

turton.michael AT gmail.com and I will give you Jeff's email.

Jeroen said...

Very Informative Michael, thanks for posting this!

Jeroen said...

Fascinating post Michael, thanks for sharing this!

Unknown said...

nice to see an anthropologist doing a great job.

i wonder if any policy makers will read it..