Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte today dropped his reflexive praise for the recent alarming surge in police killings of criminal suspects. Instead, he said that he and his government are willing to “submit ourselves for an investigation” into those deaths. Also for the first time, Duterte cautioned police to refrain from using deadly force “if you’re not in danger of losing your life.” That contrasts with his promise to Philippine voters during the election campaign that he “will solve drugs, criminality, and corruption in three to six months” by whatever means necessary.

Jennelyn Olaires, 26, weeps over the body of her partner, who was killed on a street by a vigilante group, according to police, in a spate of drug related killings in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines July 23, 2016. A sign on a cardboard found near the body reads: "Pusher Ako", which translates to "I am a drug pusher."

© 2016 Reuters

Duterte’s comments are long overdue, but the sharp rise in police killings of suspected criminals and drug offenders requires government action, not rhetoric. Philippine human rights groups have documented the surge in killings since Duterte took office on June 30. The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s twice-weekly “Kill List,” which tallies the killings of suspected drug dealers and users by police and unidentified vigilantes, records a “marked and unmistakable” rise in such killings – 646 deaths since Duterte was sworn in.

Official statistics support these assertions. Philippine National Police data indicate police killed at least 192 criminal suspects between May 10 – the day after Duterte was elected – and July 10. That dwarfs the 68 killings of suspects police recorded during “anti-drug operations” between January 1 and June 15, 2016. Police have attributed the recent killings to suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but have not provided further evidence that they acted in self-defense.

But despite those statistics – and horrific photos of victims splashed daily across the Philippine media – Duterte has for weeks turned a deaf ear to calls for an official government probe into these killings. Instead, he has praised the killings as proof of the “success” of his anti-drug campaign and urged police to “seize the momentum.” Key senior officials have echoed his disdain for accountability. Last month the Philippine National Police chief, Director-General Ronald dela Rosa, slammed calls for an investigation as “legal harassment,” saying it “dampens the morale” of police officers. The same day, Duterte’s top judicial official, Solicitor-General Jose Calida, defended the legality of the killings and opined that the number of such deaths was “not enough.”

In the absence of government investigations, the Philippine Senate and the country’s Commission on Human Rights have been undertaking their own independent inquiries into the deaths. But the rising body count demands that Duterte stop praising those deaths and instead orders an immediate and impartial investigation into alleged unlawful killings by police, followed by the prosecution of those responsible. It’s needed to get the killings to stop.