How Davao City is taking on terrorism

By Ng Yi Ming

Interview with Benito de Leon, Chief of the Davao Public Safety & Security Command Centre in the Philippines.

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the nation’s second largest island of 21 million people, has for decades been troubled by armed rebel groups.

Since 2017 President Rodrigo Duterte has maintained martial law over the entire province, making this the country’s longest period of martial law since the era of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Yet Davao, the island’s largest city, gained a reputation for strong public safety during the President’s 22 years as Mayor of the city.

GovInsider spoke with Major General (retired) Benito de Leon, Chief of the Davao Public Safety and Security Command Centre, to find out challenges the city has tackled, and how it plans to continue serving its citizens.

‘Outcompeting’ rebel groups

Paquibato District of Davao City was formerly a hotbed for communist insurgents who clashed frequently with government security forces. The rebels exploited the lack of government services in remote areas, and became a shadow government in exchange for local support.

De Leon cites the example of the lack of official law enforcement, where locals had to travel great distances to the main city to file a criminal case with the police, while the local insurgents could dispense justice at short notice through extrajudicial punishments and killings.

In 2018, Davao launched the Peace 911 programme to eliminate local community reliance on insurgents by reintroducing essential government services, like establishing police stations and delivering medical services. “It is a competition as to who serves who, so when government services have been delivered to those in the hinterland communities, the shadow insurgent government just collapsed or dissolved,” he remarks.

Under this programme, “caravans” of community support teams are sent to local communities at least twice a month, bringing personnel from the military and police, as well as officers from government agencies such as the social welfare and education departments. They work with local community leaders to educate and establish programmes that supports the community’s needs, plugging in the gaps that left these communities vulnerable to insurgents.

Paquibato district was declared insurgency free in February 2019, 10 months after the programme was launched. With a functioning government, De Leon tells us that many insurgents have reintegrated back into mainstream society, laying down their firearms and even becoming part of the government to serve the people. “Peace 911 has become a good template for the Philippines, and we're looking to end the communist discords here in my country,” he says.

Based off the success of Paquibato district, Sara Duterte, Mayor of Davao City and daughter of President Duterte, announced expanding the Peace 911 programme to the entire city, with a goal to stamp out insurgents in 3 years.

Central command centre for coordination

A key issue in Davao City was the lack of coordination between the city’s multiple public security agencies, such as the police, the counter-terrorism force, the traffic management office, and the emergency response teams. “Each agency just performed their respective mandate without integration, causing them to either overlap, go against each other, worst of all is sometimes they are jobs that are left unattended because they thought somebody is doing that and yet nobody is actually attending to it,” de Leon explains.

Davao City created the Public Safety and Security Command Centre (PSSCC) in 2012 to bring public security agencies together. It established protocols that laid out the responsibilities of each agency for each type of incident, so there would be no gaps or overlaps in their response. This has allowed the agencies to efficiently contribute their manpower, resources, equipment, as best allocated, to maximise Davao’s security outcomes, de Leon says.

The Philippine government plans to adopt the concept of the PSSCC nationwide in its upcoming national security project Safe City Philippines. “Many of the local city government executives came to visit our place and learn from us. And many of these cities have established their respective command and control centres,” de Leon remarks.

Plans for digital

The next step for the PSSCC is to have an integrated digital platform that collects and processes incoming data from different agencies, he says. This will include a central command and control system that evaluates data, and also has video analytics tools such as license plate and facial recognition. “When you visit PSSCC, all the information coming from the frontline officers are also reflected at the PSSCC, so that central decisions or analytics can come out of it,” de Leon says.

A main stumbling block Davao faces is the current lack of technical competency. He remarks that the city “still lacks the capacity to integrate all these information,” and does not have the expertise to know what they lack. “We see a lot of systems that are available, products available, but we fear that we might be buying off-the-shelf and we don't know whether these are the right steps for Davao,” he says. Davao is seeking partnerships with external experts to develop proposals and have received offers of support from the US Trade Development Authority.