Death highlights cracks in system

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Death highlights cracks in system

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The circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of a 47-year-old police superintendent last week has shed light on the structural problems at the National Police Agency that make promotion near impossible and the intense stress officers experience in their quests to get ahead.

According to the Goyang Police Precinct of Gyeonggi Province, the police superintendent of the Jungbu Police Precinct in Seoul was found dead at around 8 a.m. on Oct. 23. His body was discovered in a wooded area, and it appeared he had hanged himself. In his pants pocket was a three-page note, in which he apologized to his three children for his failure to be promoted.

“We believe the police officer committed suicide because of the stress [associated with getting a] promotion,” Commissioner General Lee Sung-han of the National Police Agency said in a meeting with journalists on Monday. “It is extremely regretful that a member of the police who has strong responsibility and affection for the organization made such a choice.”

The mid-level police officer was an elite member of the agency and a 1989 graduate of the Korean National Police University. News of his death quickly rippled through the police community and many responded with empathy.

According to members of the police, competition for promotion is particularly ruthless in the agency because only a handful of senior posts are available, making promotion standards more rigid than in other government offices. Ascending the ranks is similar to climbing a pyramid, with everyone starting out at the bottom but only one person sitting at the top. Constant promotion evaluations and mandatory retirement ages for each rank, members say, only compound the problem.

As of this month, the National Police Agency has 102,387 members, but there are only 537 posts available that are higher than the rank of a senior superintendent, who normally heads a local police precinct. The posts that are equivalent to a mid- or senior-level position in other government offices - also known as grade 4 posts - only account for half a percent of the total police forces. In comparison, other government offices have a much higher number of senior-level jobs. According to the government statistics, 6.4 percent of posts are occupied by civil servants with a grade 4 or higher.

The current structure of the police agency makes it nearly impossible for most street patrol officers to reach the rank of senior superintendent before their retirement.

Recruits are generally under an enormous amount of pressure to be promoted within a given period. In addition, the police have a strict retirement age for each rank. According to members of the police force that means one thing: get promoted to the next rank within the set period of time or face mandatory retirement. The justification behind such a requirement is that forcing officers to retire makes way for newer, younger talent.

Under current regulations, the retirement age for a police officer is 60. A superintendent has up to 14 years to be promoted to a senior superintendent, and a senior superintendent has 11 years to make it to the next level, a superintendent general. A superintendent general has six years, and a senior superintendent general has four years to be promoted to the next rank.

If an officer fails to obtain a promotion in the allotted time, he is ordered to retire, even if he is not yet 60.

Restrictions on promotion also make the competition more daunting. A superintendent theoretically has 14 years to make it to the next rank, but promotion is nearly impossible when he enters his 10th year. Officers are consistently evaluated as a means of quality assurance and are scored on their expertise. Past the 10th year, the likelihood of promotion is slim.

The police superintendent who recently committed suicide was in his eighth year in the rank and would have had to retire at the age of 53 in 2019 if he was not promoted to senior superintendent within two years.

“It is a pity that many talented officers are leaving the agency prematurely because of the system that specified the retirement age for each rank,” Lee lamented. “We need many modifications in the system.”


BY SER MYO-JA, JEONG GANG-HYUN [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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