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[Editorial] Deepening doubts

Probe needs to focus on high-ranking police figures for failing to handle Itaewon disaster

As a special investigation unit unearths details about what happened on Oct. 29 when a tragic crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon district killed at least 156 people, deeply disappointing facts have emerged about the police response, especially regarding high-ranking officials and a dysfunctional chain of command.

The investigation into what went wrong in responding to the Halloween crowd surge is ongoing, but the details that have been revealed so far are outrageous enough to question whether the police should be given the public mandate to protect people in an emergency.

One of the key police figures embroiled in the dispute is Lee Im-jae, who was chief of the Yongsan Police Station in charge of the Itaewon neighborhood. Lee, now suspended from his post, was found to have arrived at the Itaewon police substation at 11:05 p.m. As the first call to the police’s 112 emergency hotline was at made around 10:15 p.m., his arrival was some 50 minutes after the crush took place.

According to the special investigation unit and media reports, Lee received a call about a possible danger in Itaewon around 9:30 p.m. when he was having a dinner. Lee arrived at Noksapyeong Station at around 10 p.m., just 10 minutes by foot from the scene, but he insisted on moving by his car, even though the district at the time was under a heavy traffic jam. As a result, his car made a detour from the subway station, resulting in a late arrival near the police substation.

Lee is also accused of belatedly reporting to Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Chief Kim Kwang-ho over the phone at 11:36 p.m. Worse, National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun was out of contact at the time of the tragic accident. Yoon was found to have been sleeping while on a visit to Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province. Yoon learned of the deadly crush about two hours after the accident happened.

A senior officer in charge of situation monitoring at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency was under fire for neglecting her duties as she was out of the office as the crowd crush was happening.

With the key emergency reporting system disconnected, the top police command at large was unable to make decisions about the gravity of the emergency situation and take proper action.

When the lethal crush took place, five police squads of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency were mobilized, but it was nearly 85 minutes after the crush erupted that the first squad arrived at the scene, according to Rep. Lee Tae-won from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

Public criticism against the police is understandably fiery, especially after the police had been given more power in investigations with the prosecution losing its power. Some critics argue that there is no supervising authority to keep the powerful police in check and monitor its abuse of power or irregularities, including dereliction of duties.

Foreign media also pointed out that it is fairly unusual for the police authority to conduct an investigation into its own officers in connection with the Itaewon tragedy, implying that such an internal investigation tends to lose objectivity, and there is no independent organization to look into the possible wrongdoing of the police.

The police have been operating a special investigation unit to identify the causes of the Itaewon disaster. Witnesses, victims and police officers are among the people providing testimony, and over 140 pieces of security camera footage collected near the site are being scrutinized.

Inspector Son Je-hwan, who runs the special unit, said in a briefing Friday that the focus is placed on finding out the cause of the accident and whether authorities took the necessary safety control measures. To that end, the special investigation unit must investigate the high-ranking police figures involved, who allegedly failed to respond properly and left the public safety control system in a mess.



By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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