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Police autonomy to spread nationwide by 2021

Feb 15,2019
The ruling Democratic Party (DP), government and Blue House announced Thursday that an autonomous police system controlled by local governments will start in five areas this year and expand nationwide by 2021.

In those five areas, the National Police Agency will gradually stop handling cases such as traffic accidents, sex crimes, domestic violence and school bullying and will refer those cases to police officers who have been assigned to work under the autonomous police system. In turn, local police agencies and precincts controlled by the National Police Agency will focus on bigger cases related to things such as intelligence and foreign affairs.

A key campaign pledge of President Moon Jae-in was moving power away from the National Police Agency, which has been accused of countless abuses, and giving it to local authorities.

A presidential committee that’s been drafting a blueprint for police reform since last April rolled out a preliminary version last November. On Thursday, the DP, government and Blue House refined that blueprint and said it would push for legislation.

The autonomous police system will be tested this year in Seoul, Sejong, Jeju and two other places that haven’t yet been decided. These autonomous police will receive some of the cases that local police agencies and precincts have handled.

By 2021, when the system is planned to be fully in place nationally, some 43,000 officers, or about one-third of the current police force, will be transferred to work under the autonomous police system.

Rep. Hong Young-pyo, the DP’s floor leader, said the autonomous police system is key to reforming authoritative institutions and distributing their power, adding the general public will feel safer under the new initiative.

In response to concerns that the new system may harm rescue operations during urgent cases, Rep. Cho Jeong-sik, who chairs the party’s policy committee, said the public need not fear because police officers in both systems will be required to respond together in the early stages.

Police officers assigned to work under the autonomous police program will, at first, be paid through national coffers, such as those under the National Police Agency. Eventually, the plan calls for them to be paid through local government coffers.

President Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs, Cho Kuk, said the Blue House would be thankful for the DP if it helps pass the bill for the autonomous police program, noting it was a campaign promise of Moon.

Police officers had mixed reactions.

One police officer said the system is long overdue and that now is the time to discuss how the National Police Agency can share power with officers assigned to work under the new program.

Another officer who worked for over a decade in an intelligence department feared the autonomous police system may be influenced by high-profile figures or members of the municipal or provincial assemblies, which would disrupt the fairness of investigations.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, SOHN GUK-HEE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]