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Thousands In The Philippines Have Died In War On Drugs — Body Cams May Change Things


Thousands of people have been killed by police in the Philippines during President Rodrigo Duterte's years-long war on drugs. Those deaths usually come during anti-drug raids, and law enforcement offers little information to victims' families. But as Ashley Westerman reports from Manila, last week the police announced a big shift.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: When Anne's partner was shot and killed by police in their Quezon City home in December of 2019, she wasn't there.

ANNE: (Through interpreter) I was at my friend's house. I suddenly heard people shouting, saying somebody was shot, somebody was shot.

WESTERMAN: Twenty-two-year-old Anne says a friend told her he saw her boyfriend through a window washing dishes. The friend says her partner threw up his hands when the police entered, and then there were gunshots. When Anne arrived, she found him dead, shot in the head and the abdomen.

ANNE: (Through interpreter) Then I saw five or six policemen around my partner. I asked them, why did you shoot him? Why did you shoot him? They didn't pay any attention to me.

WESTERMAN: In a Facebook post, police claim that Anne's boyfriend was a notorious burglar. She says this isn't true and no warrant was ever issued. Anne requested NPR only use her middle name because there is still an ongoing investigation into her boyfriend's death.

ANNE: (Through interpreter) We are determined to fight for justice for my partner.

WESTERMAN: Anne's boyfriend is just one of the more than 6,000 people police say have been killed during the anti-drug operation since 2016. Rights groups say the number of extrajudicial killings may actually be three times higher. They also say justice is hard to come by because of the lack of police transparency. Oftentimes, officers have one story - for example, that the suspect resisted arrest - while eyewitnesses say otherwise. On Friday, though, the Philippine National Police made what could be a game-changing announcement - the rollout of a body-worn camera program.


GUILLERMO ELEAZAR: Today, the Filipino people will finally have the eyes and ears in law enforcement and implementation of peace and order in the country.

WESTERMAN: That's Chief Guillermo Eleazar, who said the cameras would be used to combat police abuse and legitimize police operations. NPR reached out to the PNP for further comment, but was directed to their website, where it says the initial rollout will only include some 2,700 body cameras. Some 600 officers began using them on Friday.

CARLOS CONDE: Why only now?

WESTERMAN: Carlos Conde with Human Rights Watch in the Philippines says this program has been in the works for years. Conde asserts that police know they wouldn't be able to continue to act with impunity if they have to wear cameras. And while cameras are one measure of transparency...

CONDE: We still believe that in order for police abuses to be minimized or stopped, accountability needs to happen. And this involves, of course, investigating every police officer, finding cases against them and making sure that the due process of law takes place. And we haven't seen this.

WESTERMAN: The police have also yet to release any guidance on how or when they will use the cameras, and there's skepticism that the police will not tamper with footage before they release it. Meanwhile, activists say body cameras offer little to someone like Anne.

ANNE: (Through interpreter) It would help. But I wish they'd told us first if my partner really did something wrong.

WESTERMAN: Since the drug war began, only a handful of officers have been convicted, the first three after the shooting death of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos in 2017, when officers were caught on CCTV dragging the boy across a basketball court and then shooting him.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila.


Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.