THE Home Team's response during the Little India riot was overall "commendable" as there was no loss of lives and the violence was contained within a short period of time, found the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the mayhem last Dec 8.
But the four-man panel also noted that police lost an opportunity to quell the riot by remaining inactive while it waited for riot squads to arrive at the scene.
"The SPF (Singapore Police Force) officers decided to hold their positions. This allowed the rioters to pelt them with projectiles, and overturn and set fire to emergency vehicles," said the committee in its report, adding that the police inaction could have encouraged and emboldened the rioters even further.
"The COI believes that the number of active rioters in (this) phase was not large, but they had free rein to do whatever they wanted."
Giving a detailed assessment of what happened that night, the committee said that there were two distinct phases to the riot before the Special Operations Command (SOC) or riot police arrived.
In the first phase, from the time of the accident at about 9.20pm which killed 33-year-old Indian national construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, to about 10.15pm when his body was extricated and the bus driver and timekeeper evacuated, it was "clear that the responding officers... did a commendable job of handling the situation", said the committee.
It said the police acted wisely in not arresting the rioters whose anger was targeted at the bus, its driver and the timekeeper, and not the responding officers.
"Any direct action taken by the police against the rioters in this phase would have taken an ugly turn. There were too many rioters and too few SPF officers there," it said.
But in the second phase of the riot, from 10.15pm until the arrival of the SOC at 10.45pm, video footage indicated a lull, with fewer rioters and onlookers than before, said the committee.
"The SPF officers at the scene were not visible in the videos at this time. SPF and SCDF (Singapore Civil Defence Force) vehicles were left unprotected, essentially sitting ducks," it noted.
The committee rejected the police's claims that they could not act because their officers were outnumbered.
"There were sufficient officers to take action had they been marshalled and directed to do so... The COI does not agree that it was a life-threatening situation, or that the officers would have been in severe danger had they moved in to stop and arrest the rioters at this time," it wrote.
The COI cited the case of two responding officers who were not overwhelmed in their attempt to charge at or detain the rioters.
Likewise, rioters had "melted away" upon seeing a Police Tactical Troop column of six officers walking down Hampshire Road.
The committee also noted that jammed airwaves had made it difficult for police officers to communicate, and suggested that a command post and reporting station could have been set up to mobilise resources while waiting for SOC troops.
This could also be used as a base to effect arrests.
It singled out the police ground commander that night - Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim - for criticism, saying that he could have "made more effort to establish the resources available... either by instructing his officers to move around, or doing so himself". He should also have re-evaluated the decision to hold his position until the arrival of the SOC, when it became clear that the riot troops - with a delay in deployment and traffic congestion - were going to be late. The SOC took 50 minutes to get there.
"Riots are dynamic situations which call for a dynamic response," the committee concluded. It also criticised SCDF officers for returning to their base after completing rescue operations, as their fire engines could have been on hand to deal with arson.
To strengthen the Home Team, the COI called for better technological capabilities to see what was happening on the ground.
These include monitoring social media, as well as available video feeds from closed-circuit television cameras on the streets, in-vehicle cameras and body-worn cameras.
Training and equipment for front-line officers should also be reviewed to enable them to quickly defuse public order situations.
The COI supported Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee's request to boost manpower, such that more resources can be deployed in mass congregation areas.
Also, the police and SCDF could develop joint standard procedures to manage such public order incidents.
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