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[Editorial] Police reform first

Investigation impartiality, people’s basic rights matter

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon on Thursday announced reform plans aimed at better coordination of the investigative powers of the prosecution and police.

Police will be empowered to close investigations based on their own judgment without sending related cases to the prosecution after investigation. They are required to forward cases to the prosecution if they deem that suspects need to be charged.

Prosecutors will not be able to command police investigations before police send related cases to them. Under the current system, they monopolize the rights to command police investigations, conduct their direct investigations, request warrants, close cases and file indictments.

The agreement between the prosecution and police was initiated by President Moon Jae-in, who pledged to reform the prosecution’s authority during his presidential campaign.

Under the deal, cases prosecutors will be able to investigate directly will be greatly limited. The prosecution will have the right to close only cases forwarded by police.

The agreement leaves quite a few issues to be addressed. The big question is whether police have the competence to conduct investigations independently and judge properly whether to close cases. Not many would agree they are competent in this area.

If police close a case, the prosecution will have no way of knowing what happened during the police investigation. Even if police turn a blind eye to irregularities, there would be no means to check them. In the current system, tens of thousands of police opinions are overturned by the prosecution each year.

Police did not investigate key figures of the ruling party swiftly over online comment rigging by the power blogger “Druking,” despite suspicion of their being involved in the case. If police were empowered to close cases based on their own judgement, it is not difficult to guess how this case would have been handled.

No one can say for sure this is the only case in which police apparently were mindful of the regime. The lack of effective checks on police to prevent partial investigations would be a serious problem as well in cases involving ordinary citizens.

According to the agreement, local governments will set up and operate their own police agencies. But there is no guarantee that local autonomous police will not be influenced by local governments. This issue is more worrisome now that the ruling party has gripped most provincial power through a landslide win in local elections.

The important thing is that political neutrality of investigative agencies, the prosecution or police, should be guaranteed. Coordination of their powers will be less significant without it.

Some have raised criticism that the agreement will bring about little substantial change while expanding only the arbitrary investigative power of the police.

Under the agreement, the right to request warrants, a longtime point of contention between the prosecution and the police, will be retained by the former. Police will have to obtain approval from prosecutors concerning warrants for search, confiscation or arrest, as they have already done. If prosecutors reject a police request for a warrant, the police can raise an objection, but it will be hard to reverse the decision.

The government said the agreement will promote checks and balances between the two agencies, but if they differ over some issues and fall into collectivism, it is unlikely to produce the intended effects. Detailed complementary measures are needed.

Powerful investigation agencies have much influence on people’s lives. If police are incompetent and unchecked, collateral damage will inevitably fall on the people.

People are more interested in how well their Constitution-guaranteed basic rights will be protected rather than in which agency will have more power.

To promote the people’s basic rights, police must first reform themselves. It is important to break up the array of rights monopolized by the prosecution, but internal reforms of the police are as important.