South Korea’s president has ordered officers to undergo extra combat training after a spate of violent crimes reignited the debate over whether police have become too soft due an influx of female recruits.
Police have been accused of dereliction of duty and “bungled responses” that have brought “shame” on the force after a stabbing left a woman in hospital despite two officers being on the scene.
One of them was a policewoman who reportedly “ran downstairs screaming”, according to an eyewitness, after an attacker emerged with a knife at a home in Incheon she and a colleague had been called out to. The retreating officer was armed with a stun gun and baton.
"The Police Act stipulates that the top priority is to protect people’s lives and health, as well as to prevent and suppress crimes, but the Incheon incident was a complete retreat (by the officer)," said Oh Yeong-hwan, a politician from the ruling Democratic Party, according to Yonhap news agency.
Lee Jun-seok, the head of the conservative People Power Party, has seized on the case, saying gender equality measures may be weakening the force.
Hiring practices adopted to boost the number of female recruits should be ended to help ensure that police officers were hired only on merit, said Mr Lee.
A petition launched by the victim’s family calling for punishment of the police gathered more than 230,000 signatures in three days, passing a threshold needed to trigger a government response.
South Korea's police force has been criticised for being too hesitant to use force and lacking field training
Credit: Lee Jin-man
But while President Moon Jae-in has reportedly rebuked the police for its failures, he has denied that the presence of more women in the force was the problem.
“This is not about whether it was a male or a female officer, but about the basic attitude of officers at the scene,” said a government official close to the president quoted in The Korea Times.
“The president has ordered the strengthening of relevant training and an improvement of systems to prevent a recurrence of such incidents.”
South Korea has been working for several years to raise the number of policewomen to 15 per cent of the 130,000-strong force in 2022. As of December 2020, women made up 13.4 per cent.
Doubts over officers’ ability to uphold the law
But the plans have long been controversial among some.
In 2019, a short video of a female officer struggling to contain a violent drunk went viral, prompting a petition to be posted on the presidential office’s website calling for an end to their recruitment.
"We don’t need a police officer that requests help from citizens when they are making an arrest," the petitioner said. "There should not be sexual discrimination, but there is a physical difference. The female officers should take the same physical tests as men or be placed in a safer and more comfortable position."
Persistent criticisms over double standards eventually led to the police in June announcing plans to upgrade assessment for physical fitness when hiring policewomen in order to match the standards for men.
The latest case in Incheon comes days after a woman was murdered in her apartment despite two emergency calls, prompting fresh concerns that South Korea’s officers are still not up to the job.
“Police officers’ bungled responses to serious crimes have resulted in some innocent citizens being killed or seriously injured,” said an editorial in headlined “Shame on police” in The Korea Times.
“As a result of these tragedies, doubts are arising over the ability of the police to maintain law and order.”
The problem stems from an unwillingness to use force in favour of passive policing, according to experts.
"There is a clear lack of field training," agreed Lee Yung-hyeock, a professor of police science at Konkuk University.
Kim Chang-ryong, the head of the National Police Agency, has since removed the head of the Incheon regional police station and ordered an internal investigation into the conduct of the two officers.
“We agreed that, to protect people in emergencies, officers at the scene of crimes need to make precise and quick decisions and use force, if necessary,” a police official said.