LITTLE INDIA RIOT COI | WHAT WENT WRONG

Police took 'too long' to activate anti-riot squad

It took too long for the police to activate their anti-riot squad when the Little India disorder broke out, police chief Ng Joo Hee admitted yesterday.

Addressing the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot, the Police Commissioner said the 18 minutes that it took to give the Special Operations Command (SOC) the green light to respond to Dec 8's mayhem was "unacceptably long".

He also highlighted a second key failing on the night. Police officers could not talk to one another due to jammed airwaves that made walkie-talkies ineffective, while their phones were affected by a lack of mobile signals.

Communications were "totally screwed up", explained Mr Ng, saying they were "non-existent".

In response, the police have made key changes to protocol, including a new command and control system and trimming some "cumbersome" red tape needed to activate SOC troops.

Instead of needing headquarters' permission, the divisional commander can now give the go-ahead.

On Dec 8, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Koh Wei Keong gave the approval for the use of anti-riot troops at 10.03pm, as it was not unusual for a crowd to be present at Race Course Road.

This was 18 minutes after the request was made by Assistant Superintendent of Police Jonathan Tang, who was one of the first officers at the scene, at 9.45pm. Due to traffic conditions that night, it also took 42 minutes for the SOC to reach the scene of the riot from City Hall, where anti-terrorism patrols were being carried out.

The commissioner, who has been in the force's top job since 2010, said the lengthy transit was beyond the troop's control. "This delay was not due to the troopers being deliberately tardy," he said. "In all fairness, the troop did its best to get itself into position as fast as it could."

Still, when pressed by COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam that the 42 minutes could have been cut had the troops been better deployed, Mr Ng said: "I concede that if the troops had come earlier, certainly we would have quelled the disorder earlier."

Mr Selvam also pointed out how the troops spent another 15 to 20 minutes discussing their next move when they arrived. "Unfortunate thing is, during this delay and the discussion, almost all the damage was done," he said.

The COI, which began on Feb19, has also heard testimony from ground officers that communicating with one another was difficult during the riot.

Mr Ng said a new command and control system - a "large technological enhancement" that has taken years to develop - will be installed by year-end. The system, he promised, will resolve communication issues encountered in the riot.

New camera technology is also being fast- tracked, to be worn by officers and installed on vehicles to enhance surveillance. Over 100,000 cameras with playback capability are being installed around the island, allowing police to monitor live footage from different cameras at different times.

"I would readily admit our failings of that night," said Mr Ng. "Our performance in Little India has not been perfect, but I contend it is far from inadequate."

waltsim@sph.com.sg

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