TOKYO — The image of Japan's police has been tarnished by misdeeds within their ranks--lawbreaking, scandals and charges of corruption. On top of that, they have been humiliated by an extortion gang that has eluded them for 10 months.
Some examples of what police have been involved in over the last year:
--An assistant police inspector in western Japan robbed a bank of 10 million yen ($41,000), and a month later a sergeant in a nearby city stole 1.2 million yen ($4,900) from another bank. Both admitted upon arrest that they were heavily in debt from gambling.
--Two police officials were arrested in northern Japan on charges of making and selling phony drivers' licenses for up to 500,000 yen ($2,040).
--A former police inspector confessed to murdering a Tokyo jeweler and robbing him of precious stones and securities worth $245,000.
--Officers were found to have covered up an auto accident caused by a colleague.
--A police chief was forced to resign when it was found he played golf on workdays and was wined and dined by people living in his precinct.
But the biggest humiliation for Japan's 217,000 law enforcement officers has been the extortionists who have been publicly insulting and taunting the police for 10 months.
The group, calling itself "The Man with 21 Faces," plants poison-laced candy on store shelves, hoping to extort large sums of money from the makers.
While nobody has been poisoned, police have been unable to crack the case and--much to their embarrassment--twice let suspects escape at prearranged ransom drops.
All this has led to soul-searching within the ranks and appears to have eroded public confidence. In a recent government poll, 59% of those surveyed said they felt the quality and integrity of police had declined.
"Something must be done to keep citizens from becoming more anxious and irritated," the newspaper Asahi said in an editorial. "The police must fulfill their duty as guardians of the people. If this sense of duty is diminishing, are internal efforts being made to correct it?"
The police contend that the spate of criminal cases involving policemen is coincidental.
"These are just isolated incidents that happened to involve police officers and former officers," says Yutaka Takehana, a National Police Agency personnel officer. "Our standards are above reproach. We're dismayed that the press has played up these incidents so much. It's certainly not a case of the police going sour."
Although doubts are sometimes raised about the accuracy of its crime statistics, Japan has a reputation as one of the world's most law-abiding societies.
The official murder rate is one-sixth that of the United States, and the United States has 116 times as many robberies per capita. In 1983, according to latest available National Police Agency figures, the arrest rate was 60.3% for all crimes and 97.3% for murders--the world's best. Of all suspects arrested, 58.7% were convicted.
Operating from a century-old system of small koban (police boxes) scattered throughout the cities, patrolmen keep close watch on neighborhood activities, including the comings and goings of strangers. In general, they maintain friendly, cooperative relations with local residents.
Applicants for police training undergo a rigorous selection process and background investigation, according to Takehana, and education requirements are high. Of 8,000 recruits hired nationwide last year, half were graduates of four-year universities.
"It was incredibly tough training, but I have a good job with regular promotions that also serves society," said one such graduate, now a police officer in Tokyo.
"The education for recruits is systematic and thorough," said Takehana.