EDITORIAL: Police accountability on trial

Wed, Jul 01, 2009 - Page 8

When Taipei City police were accused last week of hindering a lawsuit over their response to protests in November, it wasn’t the first indication that there would be difficulties in substantiating police abuse of powers. Still, more than six months after Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit to Taiwan — and the demonstrations that the visit sparked — some of the complaints of protesters have reached court.

Taipei police have been accused of using excessive force against demonstrators and violating their freedom of expression during Chen’s visit.

Following that visit, the Judicial Reform Foundation helped members of the public with complaints against the police to take action, filing several lawsuits on their behalf. More lawsuits have been filed independently. Last week, three criminal cases opened at the Taipei District Court concerning the allegations against the police.

On Wednesday, the foundation expressed concern that the Taipei City Police Department might be shielding officers from court scrutiny. In a case concerning the police force’s response to protests outside the Grand Formosa Regent on Nov. 5, the department told the Taipei District Court it could not identify officers shown in photographs taken during the clash.

The group said that police departments elsewhere in the country had cooperated in similar lawsuits, identifying officers in photographs that had been provided to the court.

The question is whether political pressure or pressure within the police force to protect colleagues is hindering the judicial process. In an unexpected twist, after the foundation held a press conference with Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Huang Sue-ying (黃淑英), the Taipei Police Department said that it would identify the officers in the photographs.

If the threat of bad publicity is needed to ensure the cooperation of police departments, then there is every reason for concern.

After last week’s complaint by the foundation and the police department’s apparent turnaround on identifying the officers, it should be clear that any obstructions that hamper proceedings will attract attention and be acted on.

However, activists worry that it is easier for the police to seek redress in cases of clashes between officers and protesters. Significantly, the perception that taking legal action against police is exceedingly difficult has been a primary complaint of civic groups who oppose a Cabinet-proposed amendment to the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法). The amendment would allow police to stop protests that they deem to be a threat to public security — but opponents say there is potential for abuse.

In April, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office said it would not indict former Beitou Precinct chief Lee Han-ching (李漢卿) — now the head of Shilin Precinct — who was in charge during an incident at Sunrise Records on Nov. 4 in which the store was ordered closed for reasons that were possibly outside police authority. The decision not to send the case to court drew criticism from civic groups and may lend credence to their concerns.

Limits on police power are an integral part of a democracy. For this reason, the three trials now in motion will be a gauge of police accountability. Fair and unobstructed proceedings will be necessary to dispel reasonable doubts on the safety of the verdicts.