[NOTEBOOK]Let the Police Have Their Tear GasIf you have come into contact with a police officer on the street recently you may have been puzzled or even pleasantly surprised. Gone are their authoritarian ways and sullen attitudes. These days the "civil affairs" police departments are more likely to regard the civilian as a "customer."
The police have put on a new face. The ambience of the station and quality of service these days often resembles that of a bank. Police houses now frequently offers day-care centers for children and study rooms in their spare space. And by using the residential registration network, the police even bring joy to lives by reuniting missing persons with their families.
As working conditions and the status of the job has improved, talented people with advanced education increasingly seek police jobs.
The illegal investigations and information-gathering for political purposes, which have long been the target of public criticism, have been abolished; investigations cannot exceed legal boundaries. Such horrifying stories as "torture in the darkness of solitary confinement," and the image of the police as acting "for the regime, not the people," are things of the past.
More and more, I sense the dedication of our 150,000 police officers to carry out their proper duties － protecting the lives and assets of the people.
Unhappily, though, the way the police have responded recently to demonstrations has left a stain on this new image － but not in the way you might expect.
The police now fail to react when demonstrators throw stones or Molotov cocktails. When their helmets and shields are bashed with iron pipes, the police remain passive. Policewomen forming a "police line" in a recent demonstration were showered with hundreds of eggs. The policemen behind them appeared unmoved, except for the fire in their eyes.
Even when demonstrators tried to occupy a police station, a symbol of government power, police officers limited their response to simply ejecting them. On the street, the police are kept busy deflecting the Molotov cocktails with their shields.
When violence prevails, after the streets have become a sea of flames, only then do the police give a warning broadcast and finally begin to suppress the demonstrators. They seem to wait till collecting evidence of violence on the part of rally organizers is complete before they take action against them. I feel a weight on my chest when I watch these scenes. Why must the police, the enforcers of our laws, suffer these insults? Have they done something to warrant this punishment? During illegal, violent demonstrations, it is indeed a dereliction of duty for the police to respond so passively and to put such a low value on self-respect.
At the start of Kim Dae-jung's administration, the police announced that they would no longer resort to tear gas. They also resolved to enforce police lines strictly. These were expressions of police determination not to tolerate illegal activities and to act with restraint. The police were applauded and encouraged by the people.
But in the field, their resolution not to tolerate illegal activities disappears, but the promise not to use tear gas is kept. A high-ranking police official has said that "tear gas is the most effective way to disperse demonstrators with Molotov cocktails, but our moratorium on tear gas means we no longer have this option."
Lee Moo-young, the police chief, and other police leaders, should give second thought to their policy of maintaining the ban on tear gas for the sake of stricter enforcement of public order and security.
The status of the police will continue to improve only if they strictly enforce the law, especially in the areas of criminal investigation, public security, intelligence gathering and traffic control. The first line protecting the public on the street is not the prosecutor or court judge, but the police officer.
The writer is deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Woo-suk