Little India Riot Inquiry: Police 'did not want to escalate violence'

Staff Sgt Azmi said he became angry when he saw rioters overturning a police car in Hampshire Road and setting it on fire. He wanted to arrest them but held back as ordered.

A POLICE staff sergeant responding to unrest in Little India on Dec 8 was so angry when he saw rioters overturning a police car and setting it on fire, that he wanted to move in to arrest them.

But he and his fellow officers held back as ordered because they did not want to risk escalating the violence, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot heard.

"I was shocked (when) I reached there - it didn't look like Singapore," said Staff Sergeant Azmi Mohamed Hamzah, who was testifying at the public hearing on Wednesday.

Was he "spooked" by the crowd? asked COI chairman and retired Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam.

"Yes, but as time went by, I became agitated when I saw them burn the police car," replied the officer from Bishan Neighbourhood Police Centre.

He was at Hampshire Road with seven other officers when about 10 rioters overturned a police Fast Response Car in front of them. One of the men later threw something into the vehicle to set it on fire.

This angered Staff Sgt Azmi, who started moving towards the rioters. But he was stopped by Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division.

Asked by State Counsel Joshua Lim if, in hindsight, he agreed with DAC Lu's move, Staff Sgt Azmi said he did. While only 10 men were attacking the police vehicles along Hampshire Road at that point, the policemen were between two big groups of onlookers on either side of the road, he added.

"If they turned hostile, became angry that we took action against this small group that was burning the vehicle, they may have just gone to us, grabbed our revolvers and batons and used it against us," he said. "It was a split-second decision in that chaotic situation - I believe my commander made the right call."

Earlier, a fellow officer who took the stand dismissed allegations of police cowardice, after testifying that about 15 officers left the immediate vicinity of the riot in an ambulance.

Calling it "a tactical retreat", Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Edwin Yeo of Tanglin Police Division supported the decision of incident manager, ASP Jonathan Tang, to get the ambulance to leave the flashpoint.

The officers were faced with a stream of projectiles from all directions and many were injured, he said. "It was a plan to bring my officers to safety, to a better place for us to regroup and plan the next course of action. The act of us going into the ambulance was not an act of cowardice."

The day's hearings began with officers setting out the timeline of events that followed the accident that sparked the riot, starting from the radio operator who received the first 999 call.

Radio incident manager Chandru Sivadass told the COI that when he received the call at the Combined Operations Room at police headquarters at 9.23pm, it was to report a road traffic accident. He informed the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Traffic Police accordingly, both of which then dispatched vehicles and officers to the scene.

The COI also heard that rioters told police officers at the scene that they felt disrespected here.

Special Constable Arshard Abdul Murad said some in the crowd asked him if the police "thought they were stupid". "They said to me words to the effect (of)... why this must happen to them and why they must be treated this way," he added.

On Tuesday, Senior Staff Sergeant Mydeen Sahul Hameed also said some workers in the crowd told him they did not feel respected here. "They believed they had been discriminated against in Singapore," he told the inquiry.

When asked what he thought the rioters meant, Senior Staff Sgt Mydeen said some might have felt that the accident victim died as his life was deemed less valuable. But the workers did not mention past incidents, he added.

There was also drama in the public gallery of the courtroom on Wednesday when Ms R. Angelina, who had been charged in an unrelated case on Monday, stood up in the public gallery and asked for "just two minutes" to speak.

Mr Selvam cut her off and said he would not give her two seconds. "This is not a townhall rally," he said.

The public hearing continued on Thursday with more first responders expected to testify.

yanliang@sph.com.sg

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