hello kitty, goodbye bad cops?

Posted on August 7, 2007

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Does shame really work as a deterrent?

Perhaps in Asian societies, it would both be a deterrent, and a negative incentive, to behave. Or at least not to get caught.

At least that’s the thinking of the new Thai acting chief of the Crime Suppression Unit in Bangkok.

In an acknowledgment that the police forces need policing themselves, the chief has introduced an element of shame and pop culture to the officers who turn up late at work or park in the wrong places. He’s issuing pink Hello Kitty armbands, adorned with hearts, to errant officers.

AP Photo

Hello Kitty is a worldwide phenomenon with children, especially girls. Known as the cartoon cat that has no mouth but allows fans to project all sorts of emotions onto it, it seems like a strangely inappropriate but also logical cartoon character to pick for shaming errant Thai male officers.

“This new twist is expected to make them feel guilt and shame and prevent them from repeating the offense, no matter how minor,” the acting police chief told the International Herald Tribune. “Kitty is a cute icon for young girls. It’s not something macho police officers want covering their biceps.”

True. But an earlier incarnation of the same idea — singling out offenders with an armband, previously in tartan fabric — didn’t work. Offenders actually took the armbands home as souvenirs.

Not that they won’t do the same with the pink Hello Kitty ones. Police officers’ daughters could be enamored with it. After all, Hello Kitty is a huge hit with young girls.

Tourists who might not be aware of the armbands’ implications, might also find the idea too cute and even start asking to take photos with the officers. It’s not too far-fetched. Last year, when the Thai military overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup, soldiers on the streets of Bangkok were posing for photos with tourists.

Going back to whether shame is an effective deterrent, it might work for a short while. But as the practice becomes the norm eventually, it might lose its sting.

The Thai police ought to think of a combination of sticks and carrots, not just sticks.

It is well and good to shame offenders, but more effective would be rewarding them for good behavior.

Why not have special mentions of good officers? Or reward them with financial incentives? These are probably more likely to motivate people to better behavior, especially cash, in a developing country where the members of the police force are unlikely to make very much.

Positive reinforcements would be a much better way to change behavior and lift the morale of all those involved, spurring them on to good practices.

It’s time to cut the paternalistic attitude. Treat the officers like the adults that they are, and stop using guilt and shaming tactics. If they were treated with the right respect, and incentivized to work hard and follow the rules, it would be a much better thing for the Thai police force, and Thailand, as a whole.

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