Calling all impersonators

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Drivers and experts worry criminals will take advantage of a new policy allowing plainclothes police to pull over vehicles

 
Two police impersonators were arrested in Hanoi in April, 2006. Drivers and experts are concerned that a new regulation that allows plainclothes police to pull over traffic violators could be abused by criminals and by the police themselves.

The young couple were sitting and chatting on a pleasant night at a public square when two plainclothes policemen approached and began questioning them.

After a few minutes, they ordered the couple to go with them to the police station. One of the cops took the couple on his bike while the other drove their bike.

As they were passing a dark, empty street, the cops stopped and demanded money. At knifepoint.

It was then that the couple realized they were the victims of police impersonators.

The incident took place on November 20 in Ninh Thuan Province's Phan Rang Thap Cham Town. The couple managed to escape and report the incident to the police.

The very next day, using the license plate numbers provided by their victims, local police arrested Cao Van Tam and Le Thanh Liem, both 28, at their rented home in Phuoc My Ward.

Although police impersonation is rare in Vietnam, people are concerned that it will become increasingly widespread when a new law allowing plainclothes police to pull over drivers for breaching traffic regulations takes effect on December 22.

According to a circular issued by the Ministry of Public Security, "disguised traffic police officers" are allowed to pull over vehicles, but they must present official police identification cards.

Plainclothes cops can order violators to go to the station or they can call in their uniformed colleagues to handle their violations, according to the circular. They will be assigned to patrol or establish checkpoints "by working incognito using professional devices to improve traffic safety and order," the circular said.

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According to the Ministry of Public Security, a trial program that allowed plainclothes traffic police to work in conjunction with uniformed peers initiated in 2009 has been effective.

But Major General Nguyen Van Tuyen, director of the ministry's Road and Railway Traffic Police Department, admitted that it depends on each officer's subjective judgment of the degrees of violation.

Tough to differentiate

Many drivers and experts oppose the new regulation, saying traffic cops should remain in uniform at all times because the new law can be easily abused by muggers, with drivers unable to tell the difference until it is too late.

Dang Van Chinh said he runs a shop in Ho Chi Minh City and must carry upwards of VND100 million (US$4,800) to his home after work each day.

"I'll run away with my bag and leave my motorbike behind if I get stopped by men not wearing police uniforms," he said.

"I'm sure no one can remain enough calm to check if police IDs presented are real or forged. Therefore, we cannot tell robbers and cops apart," he added.

Phan Dinh Ba, another resident in HCMC, has a different concern: "It is also dangerous for the plainclothes traffic cops themselves. What if residents attack, mistaking them as robbers? Should there be new charges for the act of accidentally attacking police officers on duty?"

Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of the HCMC Jurists' Association, said the new regulation can be easily abused in a way which negatively impacts residents.

Hau said that as long as traffic police remain in uniform, their activity, including the accepting of bribes, can be monitored by residents. But the new rule will make way for increased police corruption, he said.

"When plainclothes traffic police pull over vehicles, it is more difficult for passersby to observe and increases the possibility for bribery," he told Vietweek.

"Moreover, the criminals will abuse this regulation to impersonate plainclothes police in order to rob people, especially at night. And it will be difficult for police to manage this issue."

According to a national survey released last week by the World Bank and the Government Inspectorate, traffic police was ranked as the most corrupt institution in Vietnam.

Lawyer Ho To Trinh of the Nguoi Ngheo (Poor People) Law Office in HCMC said the Ministry of Public Security previously changed the traffic police uniform color from green to tan to help residents distinguish them from other police forces.

But the new regulation was against this policy.

"The current situation of social order and crime is worsening while forgery techniques are improving quickly. People are concerned that criminals will be able to easily print police ID cards," she said.

Henry Hollinger, a retired Canadian policeman who works as a consultant based in Canada and Vietnam said that plainclothes traffic police are unheard of in North America.

"This is one of the most dangerous things that a police force or government can do. This opens so many possibilities for criminals to take advantage of," Hollinger told Vietweek.

He said Canadian police use unmarked cars, but the officers themselves remain in uniform. Traffic police should be in uniform and should be monitored to avoid corruption, he added.

"Sometimes we have some impersonators here that make it look like they are plainclothes police but later they are revealed to be criminals. That's why no police department here has any plainclothes traffic police," he said.

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