Mayor Duterte. ©

Ethics and a public officer’s unconventional order

PHILIPPINE politics has been characterized as ever-colorful and dynamic as it is composed of people with a wide-ranging mix of personalities. Among which is Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City, whose rise to popularity—or perhaps, notoriety, depending on which side you are on—was effected by his policies which seemingly lean towards advocating extrajudicial means to apprehend lawbreakers.

Mayor Duterte captivated in his favor both his constituents and social media users, while at the same time catching the ires of fellow government officials and human rights advocates. He has accumulated a small scale cult-following in social media, giving praise to his unforgiving penology. Meanwhile, human rights authorities expressed their concern against the same. As he attempts to balance the people’s clamor for effective crime management and respect for human rights, issues in ethics arise under his leadership.

An unconventional leadership

Taking his political roots from his father who used to be a governor, Mayor Duterte has been present in politics for the last 28 years. He first served Davao City as the appointed vice mayor right after the People Power Revolution in 1986. Before his current term as incumbent mayor, he has already held the same position in various periods, from 1988 to 1998 and 2001 to 2010. He also served as the Representative of Davao’s first district.

Months after his election last 2013, he would occasionally appear in news reports featuring his tendencies to favor unconventional means of punishment.  News came out in July 2013 about the shoot-to-kill order he issued against a suspected abductor in a kidnap case involving a Filipino-Chinese businesswoman. Later in November 2013, upon sending relief efforts to Southern Leyte in the aftermath of Yolanda, he warned that looters will be shot, in light of then reported assaults on relief and rescue trucks by distressed locals. Early this year, when the Bureau of Customs unmasked the alleged rice smuggling kingpin David Tan, Mayor Duterte likewise unleased his vigilante tendencies. Just recently, he was seen in the media expressly promising to reward any person who could help apprehend notorious drug pushers with a sports utility vehicle—thus triggering an unconventional civilian-led manhunt.

Conduct becoming or unbecoming of public officers

The situation leaves a question: is the reported behavior by th public official ethically acceptable under Philippine laws?

At the outset, Mayor Duterte’s shoot to kill order would be a violation of the constitutionally enshrined right to due process. As echoed by Commission of Human Rights (CHR) Chair Loretta Rosales, his conduct violates the Constitution as it is tantamount to imposing penalty over suspects who are yet to be convicted. In addition, his expression of willingness to kill one “David Tan” may appear to be at par with a grave threat. Rosales similarly pointed out this possible charge against Mayor Duterte when the latter appeared in the Senate for the inquiry on rice smuggling.

The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees provides guidelines for officials in their use of power. Under Section 4 of the this law, public officials and employees are bound to observe the standards of personal conduct in the discharge of their official duties, particularly: commitment to public interest, professionalism, justness and sincerity, political neutrality, responsiveness to public, nationalism and patriotism, commitment to democracy, and simple living.

While they should uphold the public interest in the discharge of duty, the law also provides, under the standard of justness and sincerity, that officials must “at all times respect the rights of others, and shall refrain from doing acts contrary to law, good morals, good customs, public policy, public order, public safety and public interest.” A free whipping of shooting orders, then, by a public officer would be inconsistent with this provision. In an alternative context, it may be argued as a legitimate tool to combat lawlessness. From this point, it would reckon as to whether or not certain elements or conditions were present to validly trigger the use of this tool.

Article XI, Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution provides that public officers must serve the public with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency. This is manifested by how public officers themselves honor the law and set an example to the people to follow the law and orders, both legal and administrative ones. The Supreme Court, in several cases involving public officials and employees, has time and again stressed that persons in public office must conduct themselves with good manners and proper decorum becoming of their office, in every situation—whether work-related or not.

In Ganzon v Arlos (G.R. No. 174321, October 22, 2013), a case involving a public official who threatened to kill someone during a Christmas party, the Supreme Court gave a reminder that the law of good manners and proper decorum applies even outside office hours. The Court upheld the dismissal of the public official, and further defined “misconduct,” citing Narvasa v. Sanchez, Jr. (G.R. No. 169449, March 26, 2010), viz: “Misconduct is intentional wrongdoing or deliberate violation of a rule of law or standard of behavior. To constitute an administrative offense, misconduct should relate to or be connected with the performance of the official functions and duties of a public officer. In grave misconduct, as distinguished from simple misconduct, the elements of corruption, clear intent to violate the law, or flagrant disregard of an established rule must be manifest.”

Similarly, in Alarilla v Sandiganbayan (G.R. No. 136806, August 22, 2000), a municipal mayor was charged with grave threats before the Sandiganbayan for aiming a gun and threatening to kill the private complainant because he was angered by the speech delivered by the latter in a public hearing. The Supreme Court ruled that even if an act of a public official or employee is not an element of the crime of grave threat charged, the act is considered “intimately connected” to his/her public office when it is committed as response to the performance of his or her official capacity.

In Zacarias v. National Police Commission (G.R. No. 119847, October 24, 2003), the Court stated that the scope of “conduct unbecoming” a public officer (particularly a police officer in this case) refer to acts or behavior of an officer in an official or unofficial capacity which includes dishonoring oneself personally, seriously compromising his position and exhibiting oneself as “morally unworthy” to continue in the office or as a member of the organization.

Further, in Yabut v. Office of the Ombudsman (G.R. No. 111304, June 17, 1994), the Court upheld the suspension of a public officer even if there was sufficient provocation by the private complainant that resulted in the traffic altercation, mauling and eventual shooting between the parties. The Court explained that while it cannot condone the disrespect and provocation demonstrated by the private complainant which caused the patience of the vice mayor to break, for public officials, especially elected ones, “[S]trict personal discipline is expected of an occupant of a public office because a public official is a property of the public. He is looked upon to set the example how public officials should correctly conduct themselves even in the face of extreme provocation.”

Ethics or passion to serve

In light of this issue, the government is fundamentally being brought into contemplation of methods or means that are simultaneously effective and justifiable. While the commitment of a public officer to resolve the problems that arise within his area of authority or office may be applauded and supported by some, the law deems it essential for public officials to uphold the rule of law at all times.

Ultimately, what can be ascertained at this point is that the passion of a public official to defend his interest or to serve the public and obliterate crimes cannot be independent from the observance of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards expected from them, pursuant to the improvement of public service by preserving the people’s faith in the Government.

Now, the question is—can a public officer passionate to serve the people and who gives out gives an order to “shoot looters” be held accountable under the Philippine laws on ethical standards? P

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