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Paul's Justice Page > Criminal Justice Ethics > Pt 3 Police Ethics > Small Mercies 

Small Mercies: A Former Officer Reflects on Police Discretion in Malaysia

Carole Garrison, Ph.D.

Chair of Criminal Justice and Police Studies, Eastern Kentucky University

Copyright 2001 Carole Garrison. Permission is freely given to distribute paper copies at or below cost. All other rights reserved.

“I’m sorry, I forgot that I even had that gun in my bag. It wasn’t loaded - just take it and let us go. I have to get to Kula Lumpur and meet my brother. We have to go now. I have this baby with me. She is an orphan from Cambodia. We were evacuated; soldiers were in the streets. Surely you can understand”

It was chaotic in Phnom Penh the days following the July 5th coup by Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party. We—my newly adopted daughter Tevi, my brother and sister-in-law and an assortment of friends and colleagues--could not leave our house after dark or go far even in the daylight. Even after being a virtual prisoner for days, my intentions were to stay and help make the country and its people secure again, until my disillusionment with the expatriate community had finally left me disassociated emotionally with any sense of mission. I would wake up full of optimism and energy, but by the evening I would fall victim to despair and a desire to flee. I had come to view many NGOs as Transnational Criminal Organizations, unaccountable to any sovereign state, untaxed and unregulated. 

When I finally decided to leave, I found I was far from ready. I spent the evening before talking to members of the executive board and did what I thought necessary for the staff. Tevi and I had to be at the Australian Embassy to check in and time was running short. The Khmers were warning of robbers and soldiers on the road. A long-time friend and colleague, Robin, the Embassy’s doctor, handed me a Czechoslovakian 22 semi-automatic pistol to protect Tevi, our money and myself from the desperate aftermath of the coup. “Here, you know how to use this.” I took it, ejected the magazine and threw the two pieces into a suitcase.

Tevi and I boarded a C-130, leaving Cambodia. Two hours later we landed in Penang.  We were cleared through the Australian reception and I went to secure tickets to Kula Lumpur so we could head home. But there were no seats to Kula Lumpur or from there to the United States, at least not for a few days. Forgetting about Robin’s well-intentioned gift somewhere in the bowels of my bag, I claimed our luggage and took a bus to a moderate hotel on the Penang beach. 

When they stopped us at the airport the next day at the baggage check-in neither Tevi nor I was the least bit perturbed. Oh I flushed when the security man asked me if I had something metal in my bag. I actually had totally forgotten and when the question was posed I was stunned with the confrontation. I immediately responded by digging into the suitcase. Luckily I had removed the magazine so that the gun was unloaded when I finally retrieved it from the bag. The guard politely asked me to follow him.

I was ushered into a small waiting room with old 50’s naughohyde furniture and the heavy smell of stale cigarettes. A young thin Malaysian man in a police uniform came out of a small office. “It is a holiday and my superiors are away. There is no one here but me.”  He paused and then added, “this is very, very serious. You have broken the law of my country”. There was not the slightest hint or irony or bluff in his voice or manner.

A flood of explanations exploded from me in no particular order that went something like: “I’m sorry, I forgot that I even had that gun in my bag. It wasn’t loaded - just take it and let us go. I have to get to Kula Lumpur and meet my brother. We have to go now. I have this baby with me. She is an orphan from Cambodia. We were evacuated; soldiers were in the streets. Surely you can understand”. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice but also any hint of flippancy.

Police Ethics & Codes
Small Mercies
Street Cop Ethics
Christian Burial Case
US v Tobias

Introduction by Kenneth Tunnel, Eastern Kentucky University

What a remarkable and personal account of an unexpected journey. And, one, I'm certain, she doesn't want to repeat. As I read it, I kept thinking about situating this story within a theoretical frame, a research question, or relevant literature. I came to believe there are two possible theoretical and empirical traditions that are not mutually exclusive, so readers may want to consider both.

First, and the more cynical one, is the explanation of individual police discretion. In fact, Garrison mentions that as a potential reason for her guards' kind treatment and her ultimate release. May be the cops simply protected one of their own (meaning their definition of her as a cop or one friendly to them and their duties) and used their official discretion to dissuade higher ups to not press charges against Garrison. This may have been easily done, especially since she indicates that they likely did not want an "international incident." It seems completely logical that the easiest way to have adjudicated this case was to simply get rid of Garrison, wash their hands, so to speak, of the whole mess. Indeed, at the end of the essay her captor reveals that it was the sergeant who first talked with Garrison who initiated her release. Thus, we have a cop, with more authority to avoid an incident than a street level cop, who played a major role in your release.

Second, the humane treatment and eventual release may be explained by human actors who transcend the strictures of legality and authority. In other words, this may be a case of human agency over structure, or humans doing things together to, in some respects, create a social world or alternative society that values human rights, dignity and morality rather than one where humans simply behave as automatons within a structure imposed on them. You could explain human agency, in this case, as actions that are motivated by sympathy, human rights, or social over legalistic justice. This explanation focuses on the structure vs. agency dichotomy which is widely discussed in social science literature.

The young sergeant clearly did not appreciate the situation.  “You have committed a hanging offense, you can be hung”. He left the small room and I sat. Other people came in and out to see the “American woman criminal” - some were polite and others just quietly curious. I was given coffee and cigarettes.  A Muslim woman came in and sat in one of the plastic covered chairs. Later, I found out she was my guard. 

The time to catch the plane to Kula Lumpur had come and gone. I had been incarcerated in the small waiting room for close to two hours. Occasionally I would be asked a few questions, notes taken and then abandoned to smoke cigarettes and wait. I smiled deferentially at anyone who came in, hoping to gain allies among these quiet strangers. I conversed with everyone who wanted to talk and I began to slowly leak out personal information that I hoped would either intimidate or create a connection. 

Finally a face which had a different countenance; both authority and kindness combined in a stocky, handsome man. I instinctively decided to gamble on this man. He looked and talked like a professional; he was moderate in his approach and clearly not looking to create a “situation”.

We left the airport and went to the police station. A small crowded office with lots of old gray metal desks and a haze of smoke.  By now I had pulled out my folder of documents adoption papers, resume, anything which would make me legitimate, worthy of sympathy, less suspicious. I kept reminding myself to stay this course of friendly obsequiousness and not let fear result in panic or hysteria. I had to match his professionalism and create a bridge for us to meet upon half way. I remembered how often I had convinced highway patrol officers to treat me kindly when I got pulled over by making us more alike than different. I’m one of you, a former cop. I understand why you have to do this, I appreciate your efforts, I know this is difficult for you. I also knew that my resume’ made it at least seem obvious that I would be missed and at fairly high levels of the US Government.

We stopped for food on the way to the office. Luckily I had enough experience to be able to order a typical Malay dish of spicy hot chicken and rice and impress upon them that I was neither ignorant nor arrogant about their culture. My only hope was to get them to want to make this go away and not everyone yet agreed that should be the outcome.  Did I know the FBI? I was a professor, a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice? Slowly, slowly I could feel the bond take place but when I had to go into a back room for a mug I knew I was far from home free. 

After a night consisting of fear and void of sleep, I was close to giving up to hysteria and could already see myself vainly screaming hysterically at the cell bars “I am an American, let me out!” Just when all my composure was dissolving guards came to the cell door and motioned me to come.

I explained that I needed to at least contact my brother in Kula Lumpur as he expected me to arrive that evening.  I asked the detective quite sincerely whether I should let my brother know what was going on. “No,” Mishwari cautioned, “We believe you and want to find a way out of this. It will not help to bring others in.” 

But then the assistant superintendent, Mishwari,  apologizing profusely, took Tevi and I to the women’s jail in Penang. I had insisted we stay together and they honored that. In moments we were alone in the booking room. Two female guards speaking little English instructed me to unpack my luggage. Slowly they inventoried jewelry and $10,000 in US bills. I then was asked to strip. I can hardly recall now what I was thinking or feeling. I was numb from fatigue and fear. I remember arguing with them about my luggage, demanding they put it up high where the rats couldn’t chew on it. 

Finally we were led down the long dark hall where I had seen the rats coming and going. No private room or cell awaited us.  Instead, we were unceremoniously sent with one change of clothes into a large holding cell.  The room was about 24 by 40 feet with a small walled shower and Turkish toilet in the back. On either side of the cell was cement 8 by 12-ft. platforms, about 3 feet high. They were covered with a thin sheet of wood, mostly chipped away as toothpicks or more likely picked away from boredom or stress. It was dark and most of the bodies hardly shifted as we came in.  I could only tell that they were women, maybe a few small children. They lay on the floor and on the cement platform. I took Tevi, half sleeping, onto the platform toward the back of the cell.

After a night consisting of fear and void of sleep, I was close to giving up to hysteria and could already see myself vainly screaming hysterically at the cell bars “I am an American, let me out!” Just when all my composure was dissolving guards came to the cell door and motioned me to come. I saw Mishwari smiling. “Let’s go,” he said. As we hurried down the hall away from the cell he said “its not over yet, we are sorry we couldn’t come earlier”. We were still in danger - I had to behave; it wasn’t just a bad dream that would suddenly go away with the dawn! But we were also out. We were one step closer to home and it was a big step. I wasn’t able to determine how much closer we were however. Despite the friendliness there was an atmosphere of caution and I soon caught the sense of “negative possibilities” from my captures.

The detectives drove us to a clean, modern Muslim hotel. I don’t recall much of the detail of the next few days. I was well beyond tired. I was only just “on.” Another woman, thin boned, wary and older, also in Muslim headgear, was assigned to us. We were under house arrest. It took a little while to create a bond with our latest guard as her English was poor and she seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease with her responsibilities.  But as with most of the Malaysian officers I came contact with, she soon responded more or less sympathetically to the situation. Our inability to speak made our movements awkward. I didn’t want to scare or alarm her and I couldn’t quite figure out what the rules of our confinement were. At first even the bathroom was off limits to privacy. 

Her replacement was a jovial younger woman who didn’t appreciate being confined in the small room any more than we did. She played with Tevi, tried to converse with me and was generally more relaxed. But each visitor ended with, “its not sure yet, not yet.” Sometime the next day Mishwari came with his wife and children. 

I was constantly on my best behavior, masking any frustration or anger with perfect politeness for fear of unraveling the delicate negotiations taking place with some unknown superiors in the higher government echelons. No one was representing me, my case, or my point of view, except the good will of these local officers. In the late afternoon Mishwari’s superior came to our room. Similar in style to Mishwari he was surprisingly apologetic. He apologized for our night in jail, for keeping us under house arrest, for adding to our troubles while trying to escape the coup. He and his officers understood why I had the gun. But he too left saying they were “working on it - it shouldn’t be long now.” And, he added, he was optimistic it would turn out okay.  He said Mishwari would come tomorrow and take us out for some sightseeing and shopping. 

Mishwari came with mixed news. The officials wanted me gone. They wanted to avoid a potential international incident. They would confiscate the gun of course. But I would fly to Kula Lumpur and there the local police would keep me under house arrest until I could catch a flight to the US.  “Could I fly to Singapore and go home from there?” I asked. Mishwari liked this suggestion. They could arrange it and be done with this.  It was a tenuous situation for them as well, nothing guaranteed and by now they cared about the American Policewoman and her little orphan. Closure would be good.  He called airport police and they began to check out the possibilities.

Mishwari and Teng arrived mid-morning. Teng, middle-aged, thin and gentle with a quizzical face and toothy grin was another officer who found himself entwined in our odyssey and devoted to Tevi. They had come to take us sightseeing and shopping. First we stopped at a fairly modern shopping area where I bought a few things, some books for Tevi and hand cream. I noted with great authority how modern the store was. We then went to a famous Buddhist temple and tourist site. First we visited the snake handlers. Mishwari held Tevi, while I, in a show of bravado, held the big boas on my arms for photos. Teng wanted us to have the opportunity to pray and give thanks.  Thanks to be out of jail? Thanks to be going home? Was it possible? “Yes”, Mishwari said. “We will go to the airport after you pray. I am waiting for the call to come. As soon as they call it will be final. Go pray.”

Holding Tevi and clutching a small, teak totem we went into the Pagoda - lit incense and gave thanks, while I warily watched Mishwari, waiting for his cell phone to ring. His face was all I needed to see--broadly smiling Mishwari signaled for us to come. 

Teng had gone for the car and soon we were riding through the resort town of Penang towards the airport. I purchased our tickets to Singapore and we went upstairs to have lunch. The plane would board in two hours and we were still officially under arrest. My “guards” posed with me for photos, exchanged addresses, and played with Tevi in the kiddy section of the airport.  But now my facade began to fall away, Mishwari looked at me as if he was seeing someone new. My eyes were flickering and my face sagged with exhaustion and tension. He was disappointed but not unkind. He confided that it had been the young scornful sergeant who had worked through that first night to get us out of jail. 

The plane was boarding. Mishwari handed Tevi to me and said goodbye. I shook his hand and then Teng’s. I turned and walked into the gate. I wanted to run. I didn’t look back - I couldn’t look back. Tevi and I finally reached Los Angeles on July 18th, eight days after we embarked on our journey out of Cambodia.

Author’s notes: Malaysian names have been changed. Thanks to Heidi Weber for editorial assistance.

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