One young officer was praised, a seasoned veteran chastised.
Such were the contrasting reactions from the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on day seven of the hearing into the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year.
Even as Sergeant Fadli Shaifuddin Mohamed Sani was commended by the committee for confronting the violent mob with only a baton in hand, Senior Station Inspector Muhammad Adil Lawi had to defend his actions, which were recorded on video.
The clip, which showed a group of auxiliary police and Home Team officers, including SSI Adil, running out of an ambulance, was circulated widely on the Internet after the incident.
The same footage was played during the inquiry while SSI Adil was on the witness stand on Thursday.
"You were the law, and you were running away, how does that reflect on the police force?" former NTUC president John De Payva asked the Traffic Police officer.
SSI Adil replied that the eight men in the ambulance - which was immobilised - would have been burned alive if they did not beat a retreat. He added that the vehicle was set on fire shortly after they had evacuated from it.
State Counsel Sharmila Sripathy told the inquiry that an auxiliary police officer had overheard a foreign worker say in Tamil as he closed in on the ambulance: "I want you all to die today."
The inquiry had earlier heard how SSI Adil found himself under siege from the moment he arrived on Race Course Road.
"I was in the midst of assisting the officers with traffic control when the crowd began hurling projectiles at my officers," said the 42-year-old.
He told the inquiry that there must have been an estimated 200 rioters against his team of four.
"At this point in time, projectiles were being thrown at us from various directions," he said.
"Nevertheless, I directed my officers to stand their ground, as it was vital that Race Course Road remained unobstructed and accessible from Bukit Timah as I knew (Special Operations Command) vehicles were en route."
SSI Adil said he and his men held their ground, but the "increasingly rowdy crowd" forced him to decide to direct his men to take cover in an ambulance nearby.
"When I heard one of the paramedics say (the rioters) were going to burn the ambulance with us inside, I felt that our lives were at stake," he added.
He then decided that it was time to leave the ambulance and regroup in Bukit Timah Road, where he knew other officers were stationed.
To ensure the safe evacuation of the officers, SSI Adil made it a point to be the last man out. "So that if anyone of them gets in trouble along the way, I will be there to assist," he said.
His action was praised by Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar at the inquiry last week.
But when asked by the COI if his decision to retreat was an "act of cowardice", SSI Adil disagreed and said: "At no time was I afraid."
The COI noted that his actions were in contrast to those of Sgt Fadli, 27, who had arrived earlier on a police motorcycle.
"We've heard testimony from many other police officers that they all hesitated to act because they felt that if they moved forward to effect arrests, they would be more or less overwhelmed, and maybe their guns taken away, and their lives at stake," COI member and former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba said to Sgt Fadli when the officer took the stand.
Video footage showed Sgt Fadli charging towards a group of about 50 rioters with just a baton in hand. He testified that he did the same thing two more times, before he was ordered to stand down by SSI Adil, his team leader.
This was because his initial success at dispersing the rioters did not last. The same footage showed a rioter re-emerging and throwing a rock towards him.
The young sergeant said about 40 of the "active rioters" returned shortly after, more incensed than before.
"They became rowdier and they were shouting loudly," he said. "I realised that they continued damaging the vehicles and hurled projectiles when I pulled back."
SSI Adil told him to stand down. "He said, 'Anything can happen to you, but you are holding a revolver with a lot of bullets - innocent parties can lose their lives.'"
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