Spot checks are iffyThe National Police Agency has announced it will press ahead with spot checks of suspicious persons to prevent violent, random crimes and sexual offenses against children. The move, if put into action, will lead to a resumption after two years of a widespread practice that was almost stopped after the National Human Rights Commission said it was infringing on people’s basic human rights. Law enforcement agencies should approach the issue carefully.
In the past, police officers could stop and question someone on the street if he or she looked suspicious. Article 3 of the current police law says policemen can do so when there is reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is about to commit a crime or is aware of a criminal act that took place or is about to occur.
According to the law, police officers can ask that person to go to the police station but he or she can refuse to answer or comply with the request. Such discretion is given to strike a balance between the need for protection and to avoid human rights infringement. Criticisms of the practice were mostly based on an assessment that law enforcement officers resorted to power abuse without solid grounds for suspicion.
A written warning from the human rights commission in September 2010 didn’t find fault with the act of random questioning on its own. At the time, the commission recommended the head of a police station educate his subordinates about the regulation in detail in a written warning, which read: “An act to stop and question people on the street just because they are young does not meet the requirement.” After the National Police Agency announced it would switch from random to selective questioning, police officers on the front lines have voluntarily refrained from the practice.
We agree to the need for spot checks as a preemptive measure, and police officers must do their duty to ensure citizens’ safety. At the same time, however, they must not restrict citizens’ freedom of assembly by reviving the unfettered questioning of the past. If officers attempt to inspect suspects’ personal possessions for any other reason than finding a deadly weapon, it constitutes breaking the law. The police must devise effective guidelines and reinforce the rules with proper training.