The Korea Herald


Violent crime spree reignites debate on police use of force

By Moon Ki Hoon

Published : Aug. 8, 2023 - 14:26

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Police officers in riot gear patrol around Ori Station in southern Seoul following an online threat, Friday (Yonhap) Police officers in riot gear patrol around Ori Station in southern Seoul following an online threat, Friday (Yonhap)

As South Korea has seen a rise in seemingly random knife attacks this summer, some are saying that law enforcement should be granted the authority to take a tougher stance against violent criminals.

Several online comments by presumed police officers, expressing frustration for being personally liable for using excessive physical force while on active duty, were widely shared in social media and online communities following a series of recent violent crimes -- including last week's car-ramming and stabbing rampage at a Bundang department store that resulted in 14 casualties, including one death.

In response, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon issued a directive to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office on Monday to apply the justification of self-defense and expanded immunity when law enforcement officers make arrests. Han stated in his directive that the fear of litigation should not hinder the prompt arrest of violent criminals.

"Prosecutors should grant self-defense immunity to police and ordinary citizens in their use of force in emergency situations," Han said in a written statement.

Echoing this tough-on-crime position, National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun last week ordered the inspection of anyone suspected of carrying weapons or showing "suspicious signs," while encouraging officers to use guns and Tasers during emergencies.

In 2022, the South Korean National Assembly passed the revised Police Officer Duty Execution Act, which allows police punishment to be reduced or eliminated in situations where a crime has been committed or is likely to occur. Despite the revision, ongoing debates surrounding the use of police force, particularly among active-duty police officers who have continued to voice their grievances, have not abated.

In a post that went viral last week in the wake of the Bundang stabbing attack, an anonymous officer on online community Blind complained that the current law offered little protection to the police. His line that individuals should be ready to "save their own skin" immediately gained widespread attention.

The post cited cases over the past few years where police officers were found personally liable for damage caused by excessive physical force during criminal confrontations. In one instance, an officer was ordered to pay 53,000,000 won ($45,000) after pushing an intoxicated individual charging at the officer.

In another notable case, where an armed suspect died after being shot with a Taser gun and handcuffed, the court ordered the government to pay the deceased's family 320,000,000 won ($272,000), prompting outrage among law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement officials argue that such cases highlight a systemic issue in South Korea's legal system, where individual officers pay heavily for the use of force. Although these lawsuits are against the state, the government often seeks reimbursement from the officers involved -- which contrasts from the US practice of qualified immunity, in which individual officers are not liable unless they clearly violated a constitutional right, and where local governments cover the officers' legal fees.

Police excessive use of force is a major public concern in the US, however. American police kill people at a rate three times higher than Canadian police do and 60 times the rate of police in England and Wales, according to data from the Police Brutality Center.

Following Han's directive, Korea's police stated they are looking to extend immunity for officers using force during arrests, including the use of firearms.