[NOTEBOOK]Police reform will protect citizensRecently a Korean-American who visited Seoul on business confessed that he was surprised by what he saw on television. On a late night show, drunks were throwing office furniture around inside a police station and were cursing at the police officers. On top of that, other drunks were waving their fists at the police officers. "In the United States such actions are unimaginable," said the Korean-American.
He was also surprised at the differences in Korean police officers now and 20 years ago when he went to the United States. In the past, Koreans were edgy about passing a police station even if they had nothing on their consciences. But as Korea has become more democratic, their attitude toward the police has changed. In recent years, that attitude has developed almost to one of contempt of the authorities. Last month in Seoul, a patrol car was damaged after 100 persons tried to stop the police from arresting a man who apparently was in a fistfight.
Because of that waning of public support for them, the police are planning to restructure their organization to reduce the number of stations. The National Police Agency recently put forward a plan to consolidate 957 police stations where fewer than nine officers are stationed; there are 2,930 police stations nationwide. The existing small stations would be consolidated into one central station in the area. The new central stations will have 16 officers each, while the old stations would have only one police officer on duty to receive citizen complaints. No patrols or other police functions would be performed there.
The lower ranking police officers have welcomed the decision of the police agency because the new central station system would result in a reduction in their working hours. But the heads of those stations to be closed all oppose the proposal. The police say a majority of local legislators are against the plan as well because of issues of neighborhood security.
With the prestige of public authorities at a low ebb, it is unseemly to watch the police fighting among themselves over the reform of police station management. The new restructuring proposal is modeled on the system used in Japan. But the importance of the change is not only in outer appearances. The administration of police stations, which has been using the same model for generations, should be changed. New security demands mean that qualitative changes are needed; there should be more emphasis on the use of scientific techniques in crime prevention and crime solving.
Near Washington is the small city of Alexandria, Virginia. Late last year I visited a police precinct in Alexandria when I participated a program that provided a close look at the United States' judicial system. During the program, I took a tour around Alexandria's downtown area in a patrol car. The police officer behind the wheel was talking about the system used to dispatch police and monitor their movements and the high-tech equipment he had in his car.
The officer also talked about his lifestyle. He said his paycheck was not really adequate, but he saved money in other ways because he did not have any automobile expenses. He explained that he used the patrol car for personal purposes and that the gas used to run the car was also paid for by the city.
I asked him how he could use the patrol car, which was bought and insured by taxes collected from citizens, for personal purposes and not just official business. The officer's response was simple: parking the patrol car in front of his apartment or at a shopping mall in itself prevents crime.
The police agency should be restructured. But even more important is to bring back the prestige of public authority that has been lost recently. When the police lose their authority, citizens will eventually suffer. Police need a working environment where they can perform their duties with pride; that is the first necessary step to restoring their status among our people.
The writer is the editor of the crime news at JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Sung-ho