S. Korea to strengthen qualified immunity for cops
Published : Dec 1, 2021 - 17:10
Updated : Dec 1, 2021 - 17:10
Emblem of the Korean National Police Agency (Yonhap)

South Korea is moving to strengthen immunity for police officers and improve training, following controversy sparked by a recent stabbing incident.

In the incident, a pair of police officers -- a man and a woman -- were dispatched to an apartment complex in Incheon on Nov. 15 over a noise complaint. The man living on the fourth floor, who was the subject of the complaint, came down with a knife to the third floor and stabbed the woman who filed the complaint in the neck.

The policewoman, who was equipped with a Taser stun gun, was at the crime scene but ran downstairs to seek help from her male partner instead of subduing the assailant. The two officers did not return to the scene immediately.

“If police in the US are often criticized over excessive use of deadly force, police in South Korea are on the opposite side,” said Lee Yung-hyeock, a professor of police science at Konkuk University, who pointed to passive policing.

“The law should allow police to exercise their discretion when using physical force and protect police from being accused of decisions they make,” Lee added.

Against the backdrop of the controversy, a standing committee at the National Assembly of South Korea has passed a revision bill to strengthen qualified immunity for cops.

The gist of the revision to the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers is to reduce liability risks that police officers face when responding to domestic disturbances.

“Police will support officers on the front line to make better use of their equipment under legal conditions,” National Police Agency Commissioner General Kim Chang-yong said Nov. 24, siding with the revision bill.

Not a gender issue

The incident also sparked debate on female officers after local political circles and media outlets diverted the issue to the capability of female officers.

Lee Jun-seok, head of the conservative People Power Party, was the first to criticize gender equality measures in police officer recruitment. Lee alluded that such measures could potentially weaken police power.

The government has been recruiting more female officers, with an aim of raising the proportion of policewomen to 15 percent by 2022, up from 11.7 percent in 2018.

Kang Min-jin, head of minor opposition Justice Party’s youth division, however, criticized embedded sexism in Lee’s criticism on gender equality measures.

President Moon Jae-in also announced that the policewoman’s failure to intervene in a stabbing incident cannot be a gender issue, but more of an issue related to attitudes of police officers dispatched to the site.

Local experts also dismiss the opinion that the incident was due to the incompetence of female officers in law enforcement overall.

“If the female officer is guilty of leaving the scene of the accident and thus incompetent, the male officer who left the scene with his partner is also equally guilty and incompetent,” said Oh Yoon-sung, a professor in Soonchunhyang University’s Department of Police Administration.

Toughened physical test, training

Although experts in the area have agreed that the incident in no way is a gender issue, they called for improvements in physical test and training programs for police.

Professor Oh suggested the government should implement stronger physical ability tests to prevent such issues from recurring.

Oh insisted that local police should raise physical fitness requirements, even if the toughened requirements prevent female recruits from making the force at higher rates than male recruits.

Oh also raised concerns particularly in the government’s plans to change the physical abilities test to a pass-fail test in 2023 as part of the recruiting process.

“If the government is to make the physical test pass-fail, requirements need to be set high enough,” Oh said.

Professor Lee also called for a more comprehensive calendar of law enforcement training so officers can be aptly prepared to respond to disturbances.

Local police officers expressed similar sentiments toward the ongoing debate.

A male police officer, who has served for eight years in Seoul, said he does “not mind if his partner officer is male or female. The most important thing is whether police officers are both physically and mentally capable enough to handle their jobs.”

By Shim Woo-hyun (