Keeping the bad guys in lineIt’s a warm and sunny day in May and scores of people are enjoying themselves at the World Cup park in Sangam-dong, western Seoul.
Most people are just relaxing and having fun. But any time so many people meet there is always a possibility of something bad happening, and the local police has to keep an eye on things and be ready for any situation.
But the police who patrol this park aren’t your usual dull, dark-blue-clad officers of the law. These guys are rad ― dressed in light orange outfits, with headgear, kneepads and inline skates.
Since the end of April, 25 police officers specially trained in inline skating, have been patrolling the three smaller parks that are part of the World Cup Park area.
Speeding through the park in their bright uniforms, carrying their baton, walkie-talkies and the usual protective gear for inline skaters, these police officers usually travel the park in groups of five to six people. Skating around the three designated parks takes about 40 minutes, much less than walking would require.
One such patrol is just making its rounds around Pyeonghwa park. Signaling the group to stop using a hand signal, Kim Si-hyung, 24, comes to a sudden, smooth stop. “Before, I had no idea how to skate,” he says. “Now I skate while I am dreaming.”
Like all the other members of the inline skating police unit, Mr. Kim is in the midst of his mandatory military service. But instead of joining the army, he’s skating for the police.
Kim Tae-yong, 22, another member of the unit, had some experience roller skating, but he says becoming a member of this unit has refined his skills, forcing him to master such difficult moves as the G-turn, which is a turn that one performs while coming to a sudden halt.
The idea to form a police unit on skates started last summer during the World Cup, as the World Cup Park area became popular with the public and more visitors began to come.
Park Yong-su, a senior police officer, worked out all the details about the unit and was at the forefront of forming it. He says that their limited manpower contributed much to the birth of the idea. “We have to control a relatively large area, but it just took us too much time to patrol it,” he says. “On top of it, the park area is off-limits to cars so we had to think of something that was mobile but still not a car.”
Several ideas were kicked around, including mounted police on horses or bicycles, but those notions were all scrapped. “It might sound funny, but we were afraid that having the police patrolling on bicycles might remind people of the Japanese colonial days when the Japanese police used to patrol on bicycles,” Mr. Park says. “Horses were out of the question due to the cost.”
Once the idea of patrolling on inline skates was decided upon, the next step was to form and train the unit. According to Inspector Kim Chun-ok, half of the recruits selected for this new type of unit had some experience, while the rest had never put on skates.
“We had to train after regular working hours and over the weekend,” Ms. Kim says. “We recruited an instructor who taught them the basics such as stopping and starting.” For about a month, selected recruits would practice 12 hours a day to master inline skating skills, both basic and advanced.
One of the hardest skills the team practiced was how to contain a suspect. Mr. Park says that a six-man group is trained to contain a situation until backup arrives. “The mobility we have gives us the ability to arrive at the scene pretty fast,” Mr. Park says. “But if a physical situation occurs, we thought it would be better to contain the situation and call for help rather than try to subdue the people in question with force with this type of unit.”
As it is, the new inline skating unit is going to patrol most of the World Cup park area, which has an average of 25,000 visitors every day. That is, they are going to patrol the whole park except for one place, Haneul Park. The park is situated on a hill which commands a 30- to 45-degree slope. “That area is taboo to us,” says Mr. Park, laughing.
At the moment, the skating officers spend about one-third of their working day on skates, while dividing their remaining time with other duties, such as crowd control during Korea’s many spring demonstrations. But that percentage is expected to near 70 percent as the number of protests decrease after May.
Children visiting the parks often ask to have their pictures taken with the men on skates and public response has been positive to Korea’s first permanent inline skating unit. The men of the unit have no complaints, viewing themselves as pioneers.
With a claimed top speed of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, the inline skaters make for a very different police presence. “One thing is for sure, nobody can run from us,” says Kim Si-hyeong. “Here we are true hunters.”
by Brian Lee