New protections for police officers do not mean they can 'act with disregard': Desmond Tan
SINGAPORE: New protections for police officers do not mean that they can "act with disregard" and those who do so will be subject to disciplinary proceedings or even taken to court, said Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan.
Mr Tan was speaking in Parliament during the second reading of the Police Force (Amendment) Bill, which was passed on Tuesday (Aug 3).
Amendments to the Bill include giving the police the power to make forced entry into premises in the case of medical emergencies, and allowing the Commissioner of Police to delegate some powers to civilian officers in leadership positions.
The debate on the Bill took place over two days - Monday and Tuesday - with eight Members of Parliament (MPs) from both sides of the House raising their concerns.
The clause protecting regular police officers - as well as others such as those serving their National Service in the Singapore Police Force (SPF), commercial affairs officers and forensic specialists - from liability only applies when officers have acted in “good faith and with reasonable care”, Mr Tan said.
Police officers sometimes have to make split-second decisions to save lives, even if their actions may result in injury or property damage, he said, adding that these situations often present themselves in “high-stress environments".
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Mr Tan gave the example of an officer using a taser on a person waving a chopper in a crowded public space, so as to ensure public safety.
“Here, the defence of good faith and reasonable care applies even if the person suffers injuries as a result, as the police officer believed honestly and based on objectively reasonable grounds that his actions were necessary to prevent harm, and the police officer had adhered to the standard operating protocol for using a taser to restrain a dangerous and armed person,” he said.
Officers carrying out their lawful duties can already rely on the common law defence of necessity, noted Mr Tan.
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“But we want to give greater assurance to our officers and make it explicit that they have protection for acts done in good faith and with reasonable care under the law, so that they can carry out their duties with greater confidence,” he said.
He noted this is similar to protection already accorded to others under the Home Affairs Ministry, such as Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers.
However Mr Tan emphasised that the amendments to the Bill do not mean "that our officers can act with disregard".
"Officers who act irresponsibly will be subject to disciplinary proceedings or even criminal proceedings,” he stressed.
DEFINING GOOD FAITH AND REASONABLE CARE
MP Desmond Choo (PAP-Tampines) asked what regulations would be prescribed in determining what constitutes “good faith and reasonable care”.
“Such matters and circumstances may include the operating environment in which the officer is acting, standards and practices the officer has to follow, and the resources to which the officer has access to,” replied Mr Tan.
He added that these would be prescribed in subsidiary legislation to allow for greater flexibility to refine the law over time, noting “constantly changing operating environments and standards in response to ever-evolving security threats”.
Mr Choo, a former police officer, also asked if superiors would be held liable if their subordinates did not act in good faith and with reasonable care.
In response, Mr Tan said that this was dependent on circumstances, such as whether the superior had knowledge over the subordinate’s actions, or could “reasonably be expected” to be able to stop such actions.
Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah and MP Sharael Taha (PAP-Pasir Ris-Punggol) asked how a medical emergency could be assessed before making any forced entry.
Mr Tan said that officers should consider a variety of factors - including signs of distress such as audible shouts for help - and seek more information from next-of-kin and neighbours to get a clearer picture of the situation.
In response to a question from Dr Shahira on whether there would be recourse for property owners in cases of unwarranted force entry, Mr Tan said that while the SPF may provide compensation for property damage in certain instances, these would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
GREATER PENALTIES FOR ROADBLOCK EVASIONS
Others meanwhile asked about amendments that would see penalties increased for evading road blocks.
Those found evading road blocks now face up to seven years in jail or a fine of S$10,000, or both, up from a maximum jail term of 12 months and/or a fine of S$5,000 previously.
In response to questions about the number of roadblock evasions and how many resulted in serious injuries for police officers, Mr Tan noted that the SPF conducted about 8,000 roadblocks per year between 2016 and 2020.
During that time, there were 33 roadblock evasions where the offender was convicted or issued with a stern warning, of which there were two cases where the evasion directly resulted in injury for police officers, he added.
Addressing concerns about whether it was necessary to raise the penalties - given that offenders can be charged for offences such as voluntarily causing hurt should their actions result in injury - Mr Tan said the act of roadblock evasion was itself “serious and risky behaviour”.
“We should not rely on the offender also committing other offences to be able to take the person to task. Given the high risks, the Bill increases the penalties significantly to strengthen the deterrence against roadblock evasion,” he said.
He noted however that while roadblock evasions can result in dire consequences, it did not warrant mandatory minimum jail sentences, adding that these were reserved for the most egregious offences.
“We will monitor the situation after the increase in penalties takes effect," he said.