The Taipei District Court’s ruling on Wednesday last week that the Taipei City Police Department must pay compensation for police violence against protesters during the 2014 Sunflower movement has elicited opinions for and against the decision.
Some say that it would encourage passivity among the police, leading to nonenforcement of the law, but this alarmist view fails to recognize the facts and reasoning behind the ruling.
The judges said that the police actions did not comply with the principle of proportionality. The police exercised their powers with excessive force.
Television news reports from the time provide ample evidence that some officers acted irrationally and used violence against student protesters, seriously injuring some of them.
The court’s decision does not order the police to stop enforcing the law.
The main point of the ruling is that when dealing with students who were not violent, even though they had invaded the Executive Yuan compound, officers should have urged them to leave before acting. That would have been a reasonable and lawful way to handle it.
However, some officers lost control of their emotions and wielded their batons instead.
Why did the police feel free to use violence?
When officers lose control, they abuse the powers vested in them by the state. An officer who wantonly exercises violence in performance of their duties is like a government-sanctioned gangster who inflicts fear and injury on members of the public that would otherwise be unnecessary.
Further investigation is required to determine what level of authority ordered the police to use violence against the protesters, or tolerated them doing so. People need to know who at the top was responsible.
In 2004, when former vice president Lien Chan (連戰) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) contested the presidency as a joint ticket, but lost, their supporters held sometimes disorderly protests on the streets of Taipei for several weeks.
However, the government of then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) handled the situation calmly and did not authorize officers to disperse the protesters by violent means.
Television reports often show scenes of crowds arguing and coming to blows at nightclubs, even leading to bloodied faces and smashed equipment. When police arrive on the scene, they first urge people to disperse before trying to enter the fray.
Similarly, rival gangs face off and fight with weapons, but when the police arrive, they first ask them to disassemble, and then find rational means to stop the conflict.
Rarely do officers confronted with violence raise their batons as they arrive and immediately start swinging at the public.
If the police can act reasonably and avoid injuring people when faced with gangsters and violent troublemakers, surely they can act with equal consideration when dealing with unarmed students.
The police are supposed to protect well-intentioned citizens, not be tools in political conflicts.
Who at the time of the Sunflower movement ordered police to use violence against the protesters? Whoever it was should bear the greater part of the political responsibility, because they are the real culprits behind an incident for which the police department has been ordered to pay compensation.
The police need to act within the proper boundaries to protect the public. When dealing with well-meaning students, they should not act emotionally.
When faced with violent elements, they should do everything in their power to combat them.
If a line is drawn between political incidents and breaches of social order, there should not be cases that go beyond the principle of proportionality.
Chen Chi-nung is the principal at Shuili Junior High School in Nantou County.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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