Internal reform comes firstOn Monday, the Public Administration and Security Committee in the National Assembly passed a revision to the Act on Police Officers’ Execution of Duty. The revision allows police officers to be exempt from criminal charges against them while on duty. The amendment grants criminal indemnity to them for the first time in the history of our police.
If the revised bill passes the Legislation and Judiciary Committee and the plenary session of the legislature on Dec. 9, police officers can be cleared of — or reduce — their criminal responsibility for the exercise of force if it was unavoidable to protect citizens’ safety — even if they cause physical damage to criminal suspects while carrying out their job. If the revision passes, the police not only can dismiss controversy over any excessive use of force, but can free themselves from criminal accountability for abuse of power, dereliction of duty or a raid of any house under suspicion.
The revision can help the law enforcement agency exercise its legitimate authority to control violent criminals. The lack of a clause on criminal indemnity for police officers has long prevented them from aggressively dealing with crimes, which led to a shameful image of cops being beaten by criminals. Lawmakers pushed for the revision after police officers were strongly criticized for their passive response to an infamous case of child abuse, which resulted in the sad death of a little girl earlier this year.
However, many people oppose the revision citing the possibility of police officers abusing their power thanks to their newly-earned indemnity. The police’s power has noticeably grown after the redistribution of investigative authority between officers and prosecutors and the establishment of the National Investigation Headquarters inside the Police Agency. Therefore, if they can have criminal indemnity on top of such expanded jurisdiction, it could possibly lead to some blind spots for legitimate execution of police power at any time.
Examples are aplenty. Yet the police’s timid reaction to criminal suspects can be attributed to the lack of a sense of duty and professionalism, not a lack of guidelines. For instance, a female police officer dispatched to a violent crime scene in Incheon last week could have used a pistol thanks to 2019 guidelines on the use of physical force, but she fled the scene.
What is more urgent than legislation about criminal indemnity for police officers is internal reform. They must listen to a warning from experts that the law enforcement agency must recruit and train people with a balanced sense of duty from the beginning. The police must have the wisdom to demand a more active role from officers while calming human rights groups’ concerns about their excessive use of force at the same time.