China’s decision to ramp up the police’s use of guns against terrorists has come under fire after cases where officials were questioned for opening fire in the line of duty.
The central government’s one-year crackdown on terrorism calls for the heavy use of force against threats. In the wake of bombings and “separatist” attacks, cities nationwide have beefed up their security, mobilising thousands of armed police to patrol the streets and raiding alleged terrorist dens.
Beijing, the capital, last month allowed its SWAT teams to shoot terrorists on sight.
However, the policy has drawn criticism after civilians were shot by police in recent months under “questionable” circumstances.
A petitioner protesting about land compensation died in Yunnan in mid-May after being shot four times by a SWAT member.
The petitioner was sitting in his truck, which was draped with protest posters, in front of a government building when he was shot.
Yunnan’s public security bureau defended the killing, saying the man was endangering onlookers. However, residents and netizens decried the “excessive” use of force.
Two weeks later, in Zhengzhou, a gun went off during a safety demonstration given by police at a local kindergarten on May 28. The bullet shattered the cement floor, lightly injuring a child and four parents and causing panic. It also prompted concerns about gun safety.
The Kunming terrorist attack in March, where eight people wielding knives killed 29 people and injured 143 others, was turning point for gun and anti-terror policy. Officials lauded a SWAT team captain’s rapid-fire response, shooting dead four assailants in 15 seconds, preventing more bloodshed.
The Kunming attack was among the deadliest in China’s history. It was later found that seven security personnel at the station were equipped with nothing more than batons.
China’s gun regulations are vague and security forces may need more training to effectively decide when – and who – to shoot, according to legal experts.
“The relevant regulations stipulating the choice of gun usage are not defined clearly enough,” Yu Lingyun, deputy department head of the Tsinghua University Faculty of Law, told the South China Morning Post today.
“Chinese policemen’s gun usage is stipulated by the Regulations on Use of Arms by the People’s Police, but some of the provisions are too rigid,” Yu said.
“As a result police officers are hard [up making] a decision in reality,” Yu said.
On May 30, in Yunnan province, an allegedly drunk police officer shot dead a villager during a local dispute. An internal investigation concluded the gun went off by accident and that the officer was sober at the time. However, some were unconvinced.
Yu said making the correct snap decision in such threatening situations requires long-term and stringent training. “This requires training combining aspects of techniques, laws, as well as mentality,” Yu said.
Qu Xinjiu, head of the China University of Political Science and Law’s Criminal Justice College, said in a CCTV interview that security forces face complicated situations.
“They must follow regulations and laws, but also have to make a prompt decision based on the crime scene, which requires high professionalism,” he said. “Police officers, especially those serving on the front lines, must strengthen their training.”
There were similar concerns in Hong Kong last month, when a 21-year-old man threatened his wife with a knife, until police officers fatally shot him in the head. Relatives of the suspect questioned if the action was necessary.
Qu urged prosecutors to supervise the police’s gun use and step in when the public demands an impartial review of a shooting case.
“A procurator’s [office] should draw its own conclusion from independent investigations on whether the police’s gunshots were legitimate, justified – or abusive”, he said.