Vietnam police caught between a rock and a hard place

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Deranged bus drivers, helmetless motorbike riders, criminals are all assaulting police officers but a proposal to give them greater latitude to use guns is meeting implacable resistance

Traffic policeman Nguyen Manh Phan clings to the front of a 39-seat coach as the driver attempts to flee after breaking traffic rules in Ba Vi District in April 2012. The Ministry of Public Security has proposed a new law to allow officers to shoot at "those who show signs of resistance" but the public are wary the law could be abused.

Last April a Hanoi traffic cop clung to the windshield wiper of a speeding bus for nearly a kilometer after the driver, asked to show his papers, simply began to drive off.

Video clips and photos of police officers being shoved away by taxi drivers also go viral routinely.

Illegal racers and traffic violators are also all too ready to defy the police, lash out at them, and even attack them with weapons.

Then there has been the rash of brazen robberies in which the thieves were ready to use weapons against those trying to prevent their escape, including the police.

During the first half of 2012, the latest period for which figures are available, there were 422 cases of resistance against officers, a 34 percent rise year-on-year.

The government has taken note and is considering expanding the police's rights to defend themselves.

The Ministry of Public Security proposes a new law to allow officers to shoot at "those who show signs of resistance."

It said the right to shoot at suspects under a wider range of circumstances would allow the police to protect themselves in life-threatening situations.

But the public, already of the opinion that the traffic police is the country's most corrupt institution as found by a World Bank-funded survey last November, are wary the law could be abused.

Analysts say while it is true that the police are advocating for their legitimate rights, their tainted image and entrenched public prejudice are at work against them.

"˜Only getting worse'

"There is bloodshed in the police force even in peace time," Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang said in a recent interview. "This is a major and painful"¦ loss to us and to the public."

The problem has been perceived to be serious enough for the ministry to start drafting the law, which is set to be submitted to the government for approval in June.

But it has not come at the most propitious time.

An increasing number of cases of police brutality against people, including journalists, has been chipping away at public trust. It has been exacerbated by stories of police taking bribes and people killed by "trigger-happy" cops.

Last November the World Bank released the results of the survey in which 5,460 Vietnamese respondents overwhelmingly identified the traffic police as the most corrupt group of individuals in the country.

In a bid to restore public trust, after assigning female officers to police traffic, an image-conscious Hanoi police is next planning to take cops with bellies off the road.

In 2011 the city prohibited officers from wearing sunglasses while on duty and hiding behind trees to catch erring drivers.

But little headway has been made in changing people's mind.

"The public prejudice against the police, especially traffic cops, is only getting worse," Trinh Hoa Binh, a senior sociologist at the government-run Institute of Sociology in Hanoi, said.

Given the deep-seated fear that the proposed law could cause more police shooting, he said it would be really difficult to persuade the public that it is in fact being drafted "for the sake of protecting the protectors of the society."

The bill has caused vehement opposition from lawyers, who said the right to shoot at suspects is already provided in an ordinance and no new law is necessary.

Even senior police officers themselves are cautious. If the circumstances under which a policeman can shoot someone are not very clearly and strictly defined, officers could easily take advantage of the loopholes after killing innocent people, Colonel Phan Anh Tuan, deputy director of the ministry's Department of Southwestern Region Security, told Vietweek.

He admitted there was a "strained relationship" between the police and the public.

 "Any abuse of power leading to a fatal shooting would [see] the level of trust in the police decrease and fear go up," he said.

Writing on the wall?

Elsewhere, in Europe, the police are not allowed to shoot to kill. In North America they are allowed to do so but only as a last resort.

In Vietnam's neighborhood, police in Singapore can shoot violent suspects who are brandishing weapons and threatening to harm other people or the officer. But they can shoot only to stop the suspect from hurting someone.

In fact, the Singapore police now use Taser guns in less serious situations.

Supporters of the new law maintain that the police need to be able to rub shoulders with their counterparts elsewhere.

"I think this would be ok [to expand the police rights to shoot] with lots of safeguards built into the system, and officers have to justify the shooting in a public court just like in North America," Henry Hollinger, a retired cop now working as a security consultant for a Canadian company, said.

In an online survey on news website VnExpress last week, more than half (54 percent) of around 24,000 readers who took a survey supported the new law.

The Vietnamese media has been preoccupied with the police's right to shoot that it has barely mentioned that the forest rangers and other armed forces are also included in the law.

The singling out of the police points to the obvious.

"The public prejudice [means] they are very tempted to buy into the media narrative," Binh, the Hanoi-based sociologist, said.

Interestingly, the issue seems to have divided journalists.

Most of them are against the law, writing blog and Facebook entries in protest. A senior journalist in HCMC drew flak from his colleagues for publicly supporting the bill in a Facebook entry.

Another well-known journalist has been hailed for his stance against the law.

In a Facebook entry, he slammed the Ministry of Public Security for the way it compiled the statistics on people resisting police officers.

"The ministry has deliberately aggravated the problem by releasing the statistics for the past decade," his entry said.

"Only when the ministry can prove that public resistance is serious enough for the police to propose such protective measures should it enact this law."

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