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Police are blamed for being pushed around

June 03,2019
A rally of around 800 union members of Hyundai Heavy Industries and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering was held on May 22 in front of the Hyundai Heavy Industries office in Jongno District, central Seoul.

Just when the rally seemed to be over, a union member yelled, “we came this far, let’s go meet officials of the company.”

Protesters tried to push past the police line that blocked the entrance to the office.

Police stopped them, but union members wrestled away the police officer’s protection gear and shields, and threw them on the ground. In the struggle, some of officers sprained their wrists and others broke teeth.

Police arrested 12 union members on charges they obstructed the police from carrying out their duties and violated protest laws.

Police said on May 23 that 10 of the 12 people arrested were allowed to return to their homes the next day after being questioned. Police requested a pretrial detention warrant for the remaining two. The request was dismissed by a court.

Police officers who heard the news said the court did not understand how serious a crime challenging state power is and how challenging it is for police officers on-site. Officers added that when arrest warrants for people who attack police officers are dismissed, they have no choice but to cope with dangerous situations passively.

“When arrest warrants are dismissed, the number of commands for taking passive [action] increases,” said a police lieutenant who wished to speak on the condition of anonymity. “I received several orders to ‘Hold back and move on’ when a fellow officer was hit.”

Rallies can be fraught with danger for police officers.

“Unless protesters are armed with Molotov cocktails or similar weapons, it is hard for police to defend themselves,” said a police officer in charge of rally control. “Often, police are sued for touching [protesters] without permission.”

A police officer dispatched to the rally held in front of the Hyundai Heavy Industries office said police only had protection gear and shields with them.

“In principle, it is possible for us to ‘go forward and push’ [the protesters] or use batons or capsaicin [sprays], etc., but most of the time, these tools are not used on-site,” said the officer.

Police are struggling with the public perception that they are not doing their job properly.

A recent video showing two police officers confronting drunken men in Daerim-dong, western Seoul, on May 13 sparked online dispute over the way the female police officer handled the incident and how the police officers reacted passively before they were met with violence.

In the video, only after a police officer is slapped on the face do the officers take action and attempt to apprehend the drunkards. After her partner takes action, the female officer struggles to apprehend one of the drunken men. She is seen asking for help from a crowd, desperately shouting for “a male person” to come and help her.

“It is something that often happens, so it isn’t that surprising,” said police officers who watched the video.

In another incident that a police officer shared, a middle-aged woman was stopped by police for a traffic violation in Seoul. She refused to offer her driver’s license and even went out of her car and pounded her head on the ground.

The officer told her to stop, but his hands were tied, as he could get in trouble for touching the driver without her permission.

“It is awkward for police when people hurt themselves as they unilaterally argue that the crackdown is unfair, which has to be reported to their superiors,” said the officer. “I think the [driver] hurt herself because she wanted the police, who are worried [about reporting the incident to their superiors], to tell her to ‘just go.’”

One police officer who has been on the force for 10 years shared another humiliating experience.

The officer was dispatched to apprehend a drunken man disturbing the peace on the street in April. When the officer approached the person, he threw his credit card to the officer and yelled, “Buy me a drink for hangovers.”

“I was surprised that the person would behave so insultingly,” said the officer. “I had mixed feelings, as I wondered ‘Has the honor of the police uniform come to this?’”

“The crime of challenging the authority of state powers should be punished strictly, as a warning,” said Kim Jong-min, a lawyer who is a former prosecutor. “If the court’s decision is not consistent [on these matters], confidence in the judicial power will be susceptible to insecurity.”

BY PARK TAE-IN, KWEN YU-JIN AND JUNG MYUNG-SUK [jung.myungsuk@joongang.co.kr]