Police Day honors those who keep roads safe

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Police Day honors those who keep roads safe

On Thursday night, a young man stopped his white compact vehicle in front of a police checkpoint a little past midnight near Namsan Tunnel No. 3 in central Seoul.

It was a do-or-die moment for the 30-something as he slowly opened his car window for a sobriety test.

But the breathalyzer indicated trouble. His blood alcohol content registered at 0.127, a number high enough for authorities to slap him with a 3 million won ($2,846) fine and revoke his driver’s license.

The results marked an end to his driving for the night, but a dreadful beginning for police officers, who would have to bring formal charges against him and make sure he got home safely without causing more trouble.

“Damn it! Hey dude, here’s the story: I got caught up in a fight with my girlfriend after telling her I’m short on cash,” he yelled midway through the police report. “I spent all my money on a girl and some drinks, so I’m penniless now. I can’t call a chauffeur service, so I might as well just park my car here and sleep.”

After 20 minutes of arguing with about a dozen officers, his eyes suddenly welled up with tears.

“Mister, the thing is, I can’t even pay off my credit card bills,” he said sobbing. “What am I supposed to do with a heavy fine on top of that?”

At that point, Sergeant Kim Bo-hyun of the Namdaemun Police Precinct threw in the towel.

“Come on, I’ll drive you home,” he said, abandoning his initial plan to levy a fine.

The young man’s face lit up.

In honor of yesterday’s 69th annual Police Day, a JoongAng Ilbo reporter shadowed traffic police from the Namdaemun Police Precinct on Thursday to have a closer look at their daily ordeals.

Woo Seong-il, 60, an officer on the Namdaemun Police Precinct’s traffic safety team who introduced himself as a “traffic veteran,” admitted that matters haven’t changed much on the road over the past 20 years.

“Traffic volume has grown and the entire nation has developed economically,” Woo said. “But in terms of civility, I can’t see the difference.”

As he recalled his days cracking down on drunken driving, Woo mentioned that he feels “bitter” that some people consider him an “emotion wastebasket.”

“Traffic cops live with profanity every day,” he said. “They don’t know how to heal their hurt, which is why they end up complaining about depression later.”

Traffic officers have also shared the role of riot police since 2005, a responsibility Woo says makes his job all the more strenuous. In 2008, he was beaten by a gang of protesters denouncing U.S. beef imports and ended up hospitalized with two broken ribs.

Working for the Namdaemun Police Precinct, whose jurisdiction includes a road leading to the presidential office, Woo added that he sometimes has to guard state guests at critical times, like at the G-20 Summit in 2010 or the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, which were both hosted in Seoul. “One time, I had state guests from two countries heading toward the Blue House with a time difference of just 40 seconds,” he said, adding that the moment was “utterly nerve-wracking.”

According to Woo, such a heavy workload is what has made his traffic safety department one of the last places his fellow officers want to land. “There were always one or two applicants for the traffic safety department a decade ago,” he said. “Nowadays, that number has zeroed down.”

BY CHO HYE-KYUNG [selee@joongang.co.kr]

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