THE police did not have enough officers on the ground to effectively make any arrest when the riot first broke out, said a senior officer who was at the scene of the violence in Little India last year.
Instead, they were focused on two main tasks: forming a human barrier to protect rescuers so they could extricate an accident victim pinned under a bus, and evacuating a woman who seemed to be the target of the angry mob.
These were the two missions Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang had set when he first arrived at the site of the accident where a private bus had run over and killed a 33-year-old Indian national.
"It's not that we didn't want to deal with these fellows," he said, referring to the rioters. "But in order to deal with them we would have to split our manpower, and I only had so many people then."
ASP Tang, 28, was one of the police officers who first arrived at the junction of Race Course Road and Tekka Lane.
Testifying on day five of the public inquiry into the riot on Tuesday, he said the death of their countryman seemed to rile up the emotions of the foreign workers gathered nearby.
They then turned on rescuers and police officers who were responding to the traffic accident.
Two auxiliary police officers (APOs) had told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Monday that the violence might not have spun out of control had there been more police officers on the ground making arrests earlier.
ASP Tang, however, disagreed, as he believed that any action to arrest the rioters would risk agitating them further.
A third APO, Constable Srisivasangkar Subramaniam, who had earlier arrested four Indian foreign workers for throwing bottles during the riot, was also instructed to stop, the committee heard.
"My ground supervisor told me that what I was doing was brave but dangerous and told me to stop, said the Certis Cisco officer.
The limited number of officers at ASP Tang's command at the time also meant he would not be able to adhere to the protocol of ensuring that all suspects in custody were escorted by a required number of officers.
He would also have to sacrifice men who had formed a cordon around the rescuers who were still extricating the accident victim. "If there was no barrier... the crowd would have gotten to the body. Who knows what would happen next," he said.
Therefore, leaving the victim while deploying manpower elsewhere was not an option, because it would have been disrespectful and might agitate the crowd.
Facing what was a 400-strong crowd, ASP Tang said it was a fast-changing environment and he had to be constantly assessing the situation and calibrating his actions. It was thus a "considered decision" that arrests were not made, rather than out of fear. "I don't think there was so much time, to even think about being frightened," said the team leader from the Kampong Java Neighbourhood Police Centre.
The committee heard that ASP Tang achieved his mission objectives within 38 minutes of his arrival on the scene.
And despite being "grossly outnumbered" by a crowd that included "about 150 to 200 active rioters", he then sought to ensure the safety of other officers. They included injured Staff Sergeant Mak Chung Kit and Senior Staff Sergeant Mydeen Sahul Hameed, who were among the first to the scene, having been conducting spot checks in the vicinity.
ASP Tang was also the officer who logged a request to activate troops from the Special Operations Command at about 9.45 that night, having sensed that officers with specialised training to deal with large-scale public order incidents were needed.
Even after he had achieved his objectives, ASP Tang went back in and started traversing the area for other officers who were hurt, when he was hit by a rock on his left temple. Still, he managed to help evacuate a group of Home Team and Certis Cisco officers in an ambulance from the chaos.
While agreeing with the committee that this might have given the public the impression that they were fleeing the scene, it was "never his intention".
He said he and his officers had later regrouped, forming a human barricade near Bukit Timah Road to prevent a spillover of the riot.
COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam later commended the officer: "You did a wonderful job in the situation you were in. If I had the power I would grant you a medal."
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