Decentralizing the Police

March 18, 1995

Article 107 of the 1947 R.O.C. Constitution says that "the Central Government shall have the power of legislation and administration" over criminal, civil, and commercial laws. Article 108 says that the Central Government may delegate the power and administration over the police system, among other things, to the provincial and hsien governments. Special municipalities like Taipei and Kaohsiung are treated like provinces under the Constitution (article 118).

The Constitution was "suspended" between 1948 and 1988, during which time the power of the central government was absolute. Provincial, city and hsien governments were given some powers but not through democratic legislative processes. Today's division of power is a legacy of the forty-year emergency.

By claiming that he has the power to appoint police personnel and others, Taipei Mayor Chen has opened an important issue. If there is no longer an emergency, why is a national police service necessary? Why cannot the Legislative Yuan decide to turn control of the police over to the hsien and special municipalities? One answer is that some uniform laws and enforcement is needed. For examples, immigration laws, national highway laws, laws regulating foreign businesses, the military draft, national tax laws, intellectual property, etc. should be the same and uniformly enforced throughout the province.

But there are other examples where national laws and enforcement seem unwise. Street traffic, building construction, zoning, fire safety, public land access, pollution, and the like are mostly local issues. The problems in different communities are different and the people have different preferences towards them. In a true democracy, the people of local communities should have the right to make their own laws in areas like these.

Also, people in different communities differ regarding their desire for enforcement. In low crime areas, only periodic enforcement of some laws may be necessary. In high crime areas, continuous enforcement may be needed. If the Legislative Yuan wants to given the people what they want, they should consider giving local government the power to make laws, hire police, and levy their own separate taxes for these things. Besides giving people what they want, local control is an excellent way to control the abuse of power in a democracy. If a citizen thinks that his city government is inefficient or corrupt, he can move to another city. He can vote with his feet.

The Legislative Yuan should accept the challenge raised Mayor Chen's dispute. It should seriously consider specifying the division of powers between the national and local governments. It should invite the mayors and hsien representatives to testify; and it should encourage public dialogue.

A brief note on the question of the Control Yuan. Don't forget that, like the Judicial Yuan and most Taiwan laws, its current structure and actions are largely a legacy of the dictatorship.(March 18 China News article "Streamline Governmental Relationships") Don't expect too much yet. For the time being, the more watchdogs, the better; even if none is what we might want it to be. The best watchdog, of course, is an informed public.

Copyright © 1996 by James Patrick Gunning

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