Society drunk at the wheel
The author is a professor at the College of Police and Criminal Justice in Dongguk University.
Alcohol has long been enjoyed by people throughout human history and reasonable drinking can help the metabolism lubricate one’s social life. However, violence and driving under the influence of alcohol have created serious issues.
In April, a 119 emergency responder was assaulted and killed by a drunken man while helping him in Iksan, North Jeolla. On July 1, a drunken man assaulted a doctor in the emergency room of a hospital in the same city. It is common for drunk men to assault police officers in Korea.
As drunk people’s violence toward policemen, firefighters and medical professionals continues, there are serious questions being raised over how people under the influence of alcohol should be treated when they commit crimes. In the early morning when most citizens are asleep, police stations, precincts and substations constantly see serious commotions and violence from drunk people that cannot be condoned as mere mistakes.
Just because they are drunk, they shamelessly assault and insult the public authorities. According to the National Police Agency’s crime statistics, 70.2 percent of interferences with public official’s execution of duty, or 9,048 of the 12,883 offenders, were drunk and assaulted policemen. It is not just the police that are harassed by drunk people. Emergency responders often fall victim — as many as 564 between 2015 and 2017. In April, a female emergency responder was trying to rescue a drunk man who had fallen in the middle of the street. After being beaten on the head five times she died of cerebral hemorrhage.
In Korea, people pressure others to drink. There are frequent drinking outings and entertainment at work. Some even say that those who don’t drink have trouble building relationships. When someone makes a mistake or gets into trouble under the influence of alcohol, it is often forgiven because alcohol, not the person, is to blame. Even legal punishments are light.
Until now, offenders of both minor and serious crimes received less harsh punishments because they were drunk and impaired by alcohol. Society and the legal system are too generous to drunkeness and this may have encouraged crimes, especially assault, by intoxicated people.
Not just assault, but there have even been murders where attorneys have actively highlighted that offenders were drunk and weren’t acting like themselves. They attempt to argue that their crime was unintentional because they don’t remember. The problem is that many judges accept this argument. Criminal lawyers have long used the drunken state and lighter sentencing as a way to make money.
In fact, another reason for violence under the influence of alcohol is that the punishment for interference with public duty is considerably lighter than in other developed countries. In the United States, a drunk person who intentionally interferes with a police officer’s duty is arrested on the spot. If the drunk person swings their fist, the police can use their baton. If a knife is in sight, firearms can be used. The police rarely take responsibility even when the offender is hurt while being arrested.
In California, a first offender who assaults a cop is sentenced to four years in prison, but repeated offenders can get up to life. In Japan, the police cannot reach an agreement with an offender over interference with police duty. In the UK, assaulting a policeman while resisting arrest can get up to life in prison, depending on the injury.
People can drink, but they need to know their limits. There should be a culture of discouraging excessive drinking. If one cannot control their habit, it is necessary to get help from professionals. Korean society must not condone social pressure for excessive drinking.
Most of all, there should be widespread awareness that violence under the influence of alcohol is a serious crime. Assaults on police and emergency responders need to be punished severely. Excessive drinking threatens not only the health and life of the drinker, but also the safety of others. It is time to change society, improve our drinking culture and reform the legal system.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 17, Page 29