How inadequate police response added to Itaewon death toll

Posted on : 2022-11-03 15:28 KST Modified on : 2022-11-03 15:28 KST
Evidence continues to mount showing that despite multiple warnings about a dangerous situation brewing in Itaewon, the police leadership took little action to address fears and prevent a tragedy
A police precinct can be seen flying its flags at half mast near Itaewon Station on Nov. 2. (Yonhap)
A police precinct can be seen flying its flags at half mast near Itaewon Station on Nov. 2. (Yonhap)

There were clear signs pointing to a crisis in Itaewon even before the deadly crush took place. People started calling 112, the police emergency number, as early as four hours before the disaster, saying they thought they were going to be crushed.

Public criticism of the police leadership is growing now that it was revealed that the police took until midnight to deploy additional officers to the scene. This means it took them more than five hours after the initial reports from the public to take serious action.

The investigation by the police will also likely be focused on the process of issuing orders by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA), which received the initial police reports, to the Yongsan Police Station and the reason for the delay in deploying officers to the scene.

According to the Hankyoreh’s news coverage on Wednesday, additional riot police from the SMPA were deployed around midnight, by which time multiple people had already died. This late deployment of officers likely contributed to a higher number of casualties.

It was even confirmed that Lee Im-jae, the head of the Yongsan Police Station and the main figure with jurisdiction over the accident area, was actually policing an anti-Yoon Suk-yeol rally near the presidential office in Yongsan until just before the Itaewon crush took place. The rally in question ended at 9 pm, which was around the time when 112 reports of crushes started coming in from members of the public at Itaewon.

With mounting evidence of the police’s irresponsible handling of the situation coming to light, many are looking to hold police leadership, particularly SMPA Commissioner Kim Gwang-ho and Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun of the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA), accountable for the tragedy.

When a report is made to the 112 emergency police number, the 112 situation room then delegates the order to the relevant police station for that case.

With the Itaewon disaster, reports were received by the SMPA’s 112 situation room and then sent to the Yongsan Police Station.

The problem, however, is that police in Yongsan were not given proper orders by their higher-ups, who had clearly not fully grasped the gravity or scale of the situation.

“The decision to increase the number of police officers is also made by the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency,” a former police officer turned lawmaker told the Hankyoreh. “The police leadership is taking issue with the Yongsan Police Station, but it is actually the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency that is at the center [of the problem],” the lawmaker said.

Reports made to higher-level police officials were also late. The head of the SMPA received his first report about the Itaewon disaster one hour and 21 minutes after the accident.

According to explanations provided by the police, Lee Im-jae first called Kim Gwang-ho at 11:34 pm on Saturday to report the situation, but Kim didn’t answer the phone. Kim was only given a verbal report of the accident during a second call made at 11:36 pm.

Kim then arrived at the scene of the Itaewon disaster at 12:25 am on Sunday. KNPA Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun also received his first report about what had happened at 12:14 am, 1 hour and 59 minutes after the accident. The fact that Lee Im-jae was heading the security at the rally near the presidential office that night seems to have had an impact on the delayed reports to his superiors.

According to the presidential office’s statement about the situation that day, the accident was reported to the presidential office situation room at 10:53 pm on Saturday, 38 minutes after the accident occurred, by the National Fire Agency’s situation room. President Yoon Suk-yeol was himself reportedly alerted of the situation at 11:01 pm by the chief of the situation room for state affairs.

The fact that both the head of the SMPA and KNPA were made aware of this situation after the president is puzzling. It is highly questionable how the police leadership was informed about the Itaewon situation an hour later than the presidential office if the police have a direct communication line through the situation room for state affairs to both the National Fire Agency and the presidential office.

According to the SMPA, the request for backup by the Yongsan Police Station was delayed from the beginning.

"The Yongsan Police Station asked the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency for riot police at 11:24 pm on Oct. 29th, more than an hour after the accident,” an SMPA official said. "As soon as we received the request, we dispatched 13 squadrons of riot police," the official explained.

However, considering the fact that emergency calls reporting “crushing” had already been received four hours prior to the accident, this explanation doesn’t appear to hold water.

This was not a situation where there was a shortage of available police officers to be dispatched to the scene of the accident. On the night of the Itaewon crush, riot police had been deployed to rallies near Samgakji in Yongsan and to Gwanghwamun Square, but both rallies were broken up before 10 pm. It was also confirmed that more riot police were on standby near the Itaewon area at the time.

In fact, the Yongsan Police Station dispatched riot police that were on standby in the area at around 11:17 pm that night.

It was not that there were not enough officers because they were all sent to Gwanghwamun for the rallies, but that those at the Yongsan Police Station had simply not received proper orders from their superiors, who had failed to accurately grasp the situation.

“In an emergency situation, riot police who have already been deployed to other areas or even those who are off work can be mobilized within two hours. All that is needed is that a judgment is made, a decision taken, and then [additional police] can be dispatched,” a current riot police officer commented.

There are also suspicions that, due to increased strain on the Yongsan Police Station due to having to provide security for the president, including the work involved with the relocation of the presidential office to Yongsan, mobilization of local police officers in the area has been delayed and that officers are suffering from fatigue.

Various current police officers speaking anonymously told the Hankyoreh that police officers at the Yongsan Police Station in charge of security have been going through a difficult time recently due to the demanding work.

This means that the security officers of the Yongsan Police Station, who were supposed to be the first to take action in the wake of the Itaewon disaster, could not be not dispatched at the moment they were needed the most.

Individual A (52), who was the first person to call 112 regarding the situation at Itaewon that day, said, “I was standing in front of Exit 1 of Itaewon Station and saw a huge crowd pushing up into the alley where the accident happened and called 112.”

“I knew people would gather [in numbers] like this, but I question why the police didn’t deploy police forces,” the caller said. “To say that there was no organizer [of the event] is an evasion of responsibility. I want to ask whether the government did everything it could.”

By Chai Yoon-tae, staff reporter; Nam Ji-hyeon, staff reporter; Seo Young-ji, staff reporter

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