The public uproar over policemen who opened fire on an innocent student must be followed by measures to prevent a recurrence
The police are under the spotlight again after three Bangkok anti-narcotics officers fired gunshots at a car being driven by a university student, mistaking it for their target in a drugs bust.
The plainclothes policemen failed to identify themselves as they surrounded the student’s car with their guns drawn. She understandably panicked and drove on, which resulted in the police opening fire. Luckily, the student – a Chulalongkorn University law major – emerged unscathed from the incident on Saturday night.
The ensuing public uproar drew a swift response from senior commanders of the Royal Thai Police. They transferred the three officers involved, all based at Bang Chan Police Station, to desk jobs at different Bangkok precincts and relieved them of their handguns. An investigation is underway and the trio could face disciplinary and court action.
A new car of the same model and colour as the one damaged in the botched drug bust was yesterday handed over to the student by deputy national police chief General Pongsapat Pongcharoen. Pongsapat earlier met the student at her home and apologised to her and her family. He gave an assurance that the force would “re-emphasise” to officers the regulations covering raids and arrests, and underscore the rule against pulling over vehicles in public areas or amid traffic.
The incident has attracted much criticism and spurred fear that something similar could befall any innocent motorist. Sunthorn Payak, vice president of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, commented that the three policemen’s action could be regarded as attempted murder. Their reckless behaviour threatened life and property and violated the victim’s rights, he said. Senior public prosecutor Nanthasak Poonsuk said the officers had behaved in a “lousy way” and shown a lack of professionalism by opening fire without first being sure that the person in the car was actually their suspect.
In fact, policemen also risk their lives when confronting drug suspects in public areas and amid traffic. An incident a few years ago saw two police officers shot dead while attempting to arrest a suspected drug dealer in his car at a red light. Since drug dealing carries harsh penalties – including the death penalty in serious cases – suspects will often opt to use force to increase their chances of escaping arrest. Inevitably, this means that innocent people who happen to be at the scene of an arrest are put in harm’s way. In 2003 a young child was shot dead after police fired at a car driven by the father, a suspected dealer.
The challenge is to strike a balance between protecting the lives of arresting officers and ensuring the safety of innocent bystanders. As such, it is better to take precautions rather than risks that put passers-by in danger. It’s better to allow a suspect to escape rather than take action that could put an innocent person in the line of fire.
Arresting officers must take every possible precaution in identifying their targets before using force in a bid to detain suspects – especially those inside vehicles. If they lose sight during a chase, they cannot be completely sure they are following the suspect. At any given time there will likely be vehicles of similar model and colour on the road.
Offering an apology and buying the student a new car was a good first step. But if the police bosses want to avoid recurrences of this incident, they need to lay down the law to their subordinates and ensure they stick rigorously to the existing rules on tackling criminal suspects in public places. Policemen tasked with catching potentially violent criminals should also be given regular training on gathering intelligence, tracking suspects and suspicious vehicles, and the use of firearms in public places. If police action leads to the loss of innocent lives, no amount of apologies and compensation will remedy the tragedy.