The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the unrest in Little India was on Wednesday given a live demonstration of the difference between anti-riot police and regular officers.
A Special Operations Command (SOC) trooper in full tactical armour hardly flinched as a riot baton was swung with full force at his arm by Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Police (DAC) David Scott Arul.
In contrast, many of the regular police that DAC Arul saw on the ground during the Dec 8 riot were unprotected - with some even in plainclothes. They were also outnumbered, and lacked the anti-riot training and tools such as tear gas to disperse the rioters.
For these reasons, engaging the rioters head on would have been very risky for them, he explained.
"I am of the view that there would have been a risk to these officers... just simply (because of) their numbers," said DAC Arul, the deputy commander of the SOC. The inquiry has so far been highly critical of the perceived lack of action by the police during the early part of the riot.
The senior police officer described the scene that greeted him when he arrived as "violence at a level I've never witnessed before". Small groups of police officers in different locations were being pelted with projectiles even as police vehicles burned around them.
"Drain covers were being thrown like frisbees," said DAC Arul, explaining why they were ill-suited to deal with the mob compared to SOC officers, who knew how to defend themselves and the steps needed to disperse a crowd.
But committee members did not agree with his risk assessment, pointing to evidence given last week by a young Traffic Police sergeant who had single-handedly charged at and dispersed a group of rioters. They also pointed out that only a minority of the crowd were rioters, and that some others had actually assisted police in containing the violence.
"The assessment you made, and the suggestions and advice you gave to commander Lu were based on your mental picture of the crowd around there, rather than... the actual presence of the rioters, am I right?" asked COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam.
The retired judge added that the decision of the police to hold the line emboldened the crowd, and made them "sitting ducks".
The day before, DAC Lu Yeow Lim, who was the ground commander in Little India, was subjected to a four-hour grilling over his handling of the riot. He was repeatedly questioned on his decision to hold the ground instead of engaging rioters, who had set fire to a police car in front of him.
But Mr Selvam's comments on Wednesday were rejected by DAC Arul, who insisted that his assessment was based on what he saw and reports from intelligence officers on the ground.
While the actions of the Traffic Police officer were "undeniably courageous", he said that the young sergeant himself had noted that his actions further agitated the crowd, who re-formed each time after they scattered.
He added that the one SOC trooper injured that night was dealt "a deliberate, targeted blow", and that 37 police officers had been injured, even without confronting the rioters head on.
"(If rioters) succeeded in taking down an officer... I can envision the crowd then surging forward and being emboldened," he said. "I fear that if they (the police) had engaged the crowd, we would have seen greater injuries, more severe injuries."
He also pointed out how the regular police officers had few options besides charging with their shields, and if that failed, resorting to their revolvers. "If you go in with less, there's a chance that you may escalate the violence."
Besides baton and armour, the committee was also shown two kinds of tear gas canisters that SOC troops could use, as well as two different-sized shields.
Together with their training which "allows us to deploy without much instructions", he explained, SOC troops were more likely to disperse the crowd, instead of being forced into a situation where shots had to be fired.
The COI enters its 11th day, Thursday. Representatives from the Migrant Workers' Centre and Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union, as well as two foreign workers who witnessed the riot, are expected to testify.
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