ONE reason Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa is the most closely watched person in President Rodrigo Duterte’s official family is that the president’s most dominant campaign promise rests on his beefy shoulders.

More than once, dela Rosa has announced that he would resign if, after six months, the police fails “to reduce to the lowest possible level our country’s problems with drugs, criminality and corruption.” When he assumed office last July 2, the 54-year-old police chief said he was honored to be the president’s right-hand man in this campaign. “Dili gayud ako magpakaulaw nimo, Sir (I will never cause you any embarrassment, Sir),” he said.

Yet to paint dela Rosa as an aspiring Duterte clone is to miss at least one nuance of this close relationship that began 30 years ago, when the young constabulary officer, fresh out of the Philippine Military Academy, met the rising prosecutor from Davao. The president and his police chief appear to function as a tag team.

While they share a paternalistic leadership style and a penchant for tough talk, dela Rosa blunts the edge of the president’s words: he’s the “good cop” to his mentor’s “bad cop” spiel. He showed this on his first day at work, when he asked people to pray that the police wouldn’t make mistakes, wouldn’t violate people’s rights.

Visiting Cebu last Monday, the police chief again emphasized that the effort to clean the PNP’s ranks would be relentless. But he also appealed to Mayor Tomas Osmeña to reconsider a decision to cut off the City Government’s assistance to officers newly assigned to Cebu City. “Please do not abandon us,” he said. His tone was at once firm and conciliatory.

Merely four days after he took office, dela Rosa had to deal with the president’s announcement that linked five police generals to the illegal drug trade. After meeting with three of the generals, all of whom outranked him before his latest appointment, dela Rosa appeared on the brink of tears. “I wanted to cry with them,” he told reporters.

But he also had no questions or doubts about the president’s information. And the president has obviously approved of dela Rosa’s unorthodox tactics. Under his leadership, the innocuously named Oplan Tokhang has allowed police stations nationwide to create possibly its largest database yet on ordinary Filipinos who have used or sold illegal drugs.

So this is how they’ll work. The president, for whom legal immunity is a considerable gift, will name as many suspects as he so wishes. To the police and local officials affected, dela Rosa will offer a sympathetic ear.

Human rights advocates still scrambling to organize the necessary counterpoint to this increasingly blood-soaked campaign against drugs would be wise to try to work with the PNP chief. Otherwise, they risk getting caught between the man they call Bato and a very hard place.