FEATURE: Philippines makes tough cops tourist-friendly.
Until April this year, Rommel Anicete spent his time investigating just about any sort of crime that popped up in the Philippine capital Manila.
Now, far from his usual environment, Anicete, 37, works from a minimally equipped but well-ventilated police station near Manila's main tourist attraction Luneta Park where, as deputy head of the 71-member Manila Police District's Tourist Police, he receives queries and complaints from local and foreign tourists.
''Our main concern is to make tourists feel safe. And for this Christmas season, we have a specific security plan to ensure the safety of tourists in the Philippines,'' Anicete told Kyodo News.
The Department of Tourism tied up with the Philippine National Police in December last year to create the Tourism Security Force through the Tourist-Oriented Police for Community Order and Protection, TOPCOP, program.
Mandated by the Tourism Act of 2009, the tourist police replaced the tourism department's deputized security agents who were perceived as less efficient, especially because they had no authority to arrest.
But it took the bold hostage-taking of tourists from Hong Kong in August 2010 for the government to establish the special police unit.
Eight tourists are believed to have been killed by the hostage-taker, a disgruntled former policeman, before he was shot by police.
The tourism department said more than a thousand ''tourist policemen'' in parts of the country frequented by local and foreign visitors have so far been produced by TOPCOP.
They are deployed to parts of Manila, Baguio City in the north, and on Boracay Island, Bohol, Donsol, Legazpi City and Dumaguete City in the central Philippines.
Some policemen from Cebu, Zambales, Davao City, Palawan, Cagayan de Oro City, Ilocos Norte, Camiguin Island, Surigao del Norte, Cagayan Valley, Mindoro, General Santos City, Zamboanga City and Tacloban City have also had training.
''The mere presence and increased visibility of tourist police in areas frequently visited by tourists will deter occurrence of untoward incidents and commission of crimes,'' Tourism Assistant Secretary Benito Bengzon, Jr. told Kyodo.
More than 3 million foreign tourists visited the Philippines in the first nine months this year, up almost 12 percent from for the same months in 2010, the department said.
South Koreans top the list, numbering 756,863, followed by 512,436 U.S. nationals and 311,402 Japanese.
Anicete said that so far, robbery tops the complaints received from tourists.
His subordinate Rey Rabut, offering an example of the work the new tourist police force face, recounted how a Japanese tourist would have lost a digital camera to a horse-drawn cart owner in November if the tourist police had not been able to intervene.
''He came to our office and reported the loss. We retrieved it on the same day after we identified the cart. The Japanese tourist was very happy and grateful. He treated us to snacks in our office after that,'' Rabut said.
Anicete said what separates the tourist police from the regular police is their information about tourist destinations that allows them to serve as tour guides as well as investigators, if approached by visitors.
''The additional duty of tourist police is to act as stewards. We'd like to tell tourists, both local and foreign, that they are always welcome, that it's safer here now than before,'' he said.
Anicete also hopes plans to add training in foreign languages such as Korean, Chinese and Japanese will go ahead because of the importance of communication in their specialized job.
Comfortable with English, Anicete said dealing with European and American tourists, who are their most common clients both asking directions and reporting crimes, is no longer a problem.
He also hopes for their unit to be granted greater investigative powers and more vehicles so they can perform better.
Anicete's unit now has only bicycles for the men to patrol and respond to crimes, although he said their mere presence, visibility, already helps deter criminals.
''We feel good because we feel that tourists trust us. They prefer to approach us instead of going to our regular police stations, so I can say that this program is effective and is serving its purpose,'' Anicete said.