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Police handling of violent crowd in Little India under scrutiny

How police officers handled the escalating violence on the night of the Little India riot came under scrutiny on Friday - on the third day of a public hearing by the Committee of Inquiry convened to look into the riot.

SINGAPORE: How police officers handled the escalating violence on the night of the Little India riot came under scrutiny on Friday - on the third day of a public hearing by the Committee of Inquiry convened to look into the riot.

Deputy Police Commissioner T. Raja Kumar took the stand and said police officers had been trying to contain the situation and prevent the riot from spreading before the troops from the Special Operations Command (SOC) arrived.

He said the SOC was seen as the "decisive force" which would be able to break up the riot.

But the Committee of Inquiry questioned if the officers - by holding their ground and not taking the rioters on especially after police vehicles were set ablaze - had given the perception that they were doing nothing, and thus further emboldened the rioters.

"For over an hour, they appeared to do nothing. How does the crowd perceive the police?" asked former Police Commissioner Tee Tua Ba, who is one of the four members of the committee.

Mr Raja Kumar emphasised that the officers were focused on saving lives and protecting innocent civilians.

They did this by protecting Singapore Civil Defence Force officers from projectiles being thrown at them by the crowd, as they worked to extricate the body of Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu from under the bus, as well as helping the driver and timekeeper escape from the bus where they were taking refuge from the angry mob.

"After that, the assessment was that they didn't have the numbers, equipment, or training to deal decisively with the rioters," he said.

Mr Raja Kumar was also asked why the officers, who were armed with guns, did not fire any shots?

"Within the whole operation area, there were not just rioters, there were many curious onlookers, members of public, people who were having their meals. If you open fire in a situation like this there would be loss of innocent civilian lives. We are not talking about it being a very clear situation where you are faced with 50 rioters in front," he responded.

Committee member Mr Tee also observed that police officers had appeared to be scattered and not working together as a group, which would have been required to deal with a large-scale public order issue such as that night's riot.

Congested radio signals also made it difficult for officers to communicate.

Mr Raja Kumar also gave a blow-by-blow account of how the police had responded to the riot that night.

At 9.23pm, the police were informed of a road traffic accident involving a bus, and the information was relayed to the Traffic Police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

In under 15 minutes, two police officers on patrol made it to the scene after being informed by an auxiliary police officer that a crowd was gathering around the bus.

They were followed shortly by two other police officers.

This was despite the call being reported as an accident, which meant that it would usually be responded to by the Traffic Police.

With the crowd around the bus getting more charged, it was decided around 9.45pm that SOC's assistance was needed.

"As the nature of the accident escalated, and the rioters changed from being boisterous to being violent and rowdy... that would be commensurate in getting the SOC in quickly," said Mr Raja Kumar.

Approval was given at 10.03pm to activate the SOC troops, and the first team was activated at 10.04pm.

Mr Raja Kumar explained that the delay in approving the decision to send SOC troops to the scene.

He said that the officer-in-charge of making the decision had wanted to find out exactly what the situation was so he could make an assessment and judgment, as the information he received was sketchy.

"We think the time taken is too long and ought to be abbreviated and has been abbreviated," he added.

A second troop was activated around 10.15pm.

Mr Raja Kumar told the committee that two troops arrived at the scene - one around 10.40pm - partly due to congested traffic, and the other shortly after at around 10.48pm.

The riot was successfully broken up a short while later - by around 11.30pm.

Earlier in the day, he also responded to questions from the committee about why there was no regular deployment of SOC troops to patrol the Little India area despite large crowds and consumption of alcohol during the weekends.

Mr Raja Kumar said this was because the crime situation in the area had improved over the years, and more police resources which include auxiliary police and security officers had been committed to carry out enforcement on the ground.

By and large, foreign workers had also not caused major problems in Little India over the years.

Mr Raja Kumar said that in the period between 2009 and 2013, the crime rate in Little India fell by over 32 per cent.

"A lot of attention has been paid to Little India in terms of enforcement on the ground," he said, adding that troops from the SOC had been deployed to patrol the area no less than 16 times last year.

He added that for planned events such as Thaipusam, more resources are deployed.

But the SOC, made up of eight troops, cannot be deployed to Little India every weekend as it has to also cover other potential problem spots, for example in Geylang.

"If we have the resources, we would do so," he said, adding that even though the number of troops in the SOC, and number of people in the troops have come down, efforts have been made to raise their capabilities.

Mr Raja Kumar highlighted to the committee that following the incident, the police force has fast-tracked plans to leverage technology that will allow its nerve centres to view incidents happening on the ground through cameras mounted on vehicles and police officers.

This followed feedback from officers that radio signals on the night of the riot were congested, and phone lines jammed because of the number of calls from the public about the incident.

The inquiry continues on Monday, with a bus passenger and three auxiliary police officers expected to take the stand. 

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