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Two weeks of police shootings sparks debate

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” Anton Chekhov,

Several incidents of Chinese police discharging their weapons in the last two weeks, raise questions about police training, regulations.

For much of the world, there is nothing unusual about seeing armed police patrolling the streets. In China, however, except for special forces known as ‘the People’s Armed Police”, it has been decades since ordinary police officers have carried weapons. Following recent terror attacks and rising crime rates, however, China has begun equipping some regular police with service revolvers.  The change is being implemented incrementally, starting with the major cities such as Shanghai, and Beijing, and also frontier regions with large minority populations such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan.

Chinese Police, like their colleagues abroad, are often in a difficult position, required to make split second decisions and face danger in service of a public that is quick to criticize their inaction, but even quicker to criticize missteps. Incidents of corruption, coerced confessions and other abuses of power can do even more to tint the public perception of daily police work and repairing a force’s damaged reputation can seem impossible.

Use of lethal force by police is always met by the highest levels of public scrutiny, so one would expect that before equipping patrol officers with handguns, there would be careful controls and heightened training to make sure that the public views the new weapons as an asset for their protection, not a new threat.

In Shanghai at least, this seems to have been the case. Police there must undergo a battery of psychological tests and advanced training in handgun use and regulations before being allowed to carry their weapon. While other areas may have had similar requirements, a number of incidents happening in a short period of time have already ensured that public debate on police gun use will continue for some time.

1.   Yunnan Province, Zhenxiong May 15; a special police unit shot dead a disgruntled farmer who was said to be endangering pedestrians by driving his heavy truck at a crowd. When confronted by police he is said to have waived a knife at them from the driver’s seat. Police fired warning shots, and when the vehicle didn’t stop, finally shot the driver, who could not be resuscitated. The case is notable because hundreds of self-described eye witnesses have openly contested the official story saying there was no threat to public safety or need to shoot. The public response further soured when it was revealed that a commendation order was given for the shooting just 3 hours after it happened, and before an official investigation could be concluded.

 2. Zhengzhou, May 29: Police injured four adults and a child with a single shot while conducting a safety demonstration at an area kindergarten. One of the officer’s guns misfired, kicking up shrapnel and sparks when the bullet ricocheted off the ground, causing minor injuries to the five victims. Two police were confined as a result of the mishap, and three of their superiors were suspended.

 3.    Luoping County, Yunnan Province; May 30:  Tempers flared over a property dispute at a village party, until one of the drunken revelers grabbed a knife and began making threats. Four police responded to a call from the intended victim, but were received with hostility by several of the others villagers who surrounded, cursed and struck them. Police reportedly fired warning shots, but the attacks and cursing did not abate.

 The officers finally managed to pull a Mr. Chen (not the subject of the original call) out to their vehicle, but before he could get inside, there was a struggle and a gun went off accidentally, hitting Mr. Chen in the chest (leaving an entrance and exit wound from left to right – photos). He died after being rushed to an area hospital where efforts to save him were unsuccessful.

Early reports repeated villagers’ suspiciou that the police arriving on scene were drunk, although the initial official investigation has reportedly concluded this was not the case. It is said that they did arrive in an unmarked car without license plates and were not wearing uniforms, which may have caused some confusion, despite their reportedly identifying themselves as police. It has been explained that this is because they raced to the scene from a previous call with no time to change equipment. Mr. Chen’s relatives say they have not yet been able to get his remains.

 4. Guizhou, Sansui; May 30 : Enraged, a drunken 46 year-old man waved a knife menacingly, looking for his wife who was hiding from him after a fight. Before long, someone called the police. Five or Six officers arrived, but the man had already been taken home by friends and family.  The police went into the man’s home and shortly after three shots were fired and the man, Le Dehong, was dead. The first bullet was originally said to have missed when Mr. Le’s friend pushed the officer’s arm, the second hit Mr. Le in the chest and the third went outside and landed on the ground.

 Later reports said there were two warning shots fired and then a third shot that killed Mr. Le. These reports say that Mr. Le attacked police with a knife when they followed him into his rented rooms, injuring one. The investigation continues.

 5.    Beijing, May 31: A non-fatal shooting. When police stopped a suspicious taxi, the driver refused to cooperate and attempted to flee, hitting a police car boxing him in. Police shot out one of his rear tires and detained him.

 One of the common elements of the reporting of these stories is the confusion surrounding the basic facts. In the absence of information, the public often begins to suspect the worst and rumors abound. In addition to increased training and further regulation for use of service weapons, Chinese police will probably benefit from some lessons in communication with the public and media.

The PRC Regulations on the Use of Restraints and Weapons by People’s Police [中华人民共和国人民警察使用警械和武器条例] lists 15 situations were the use of weapons is permitted:

1) arson, flooding, explosions or other serious harm public safety;
(2) hijacking of aircraft, ships, trains or motor vehicle or the driving of cars, boats or other transportation, deliberately endangering public safety;
(3) theft or robbery of guns and ammunition, explosives, toxins or other dangerous substances, seriously endangering public safety;
(4) the use of firearms, explosives, toxins or other dangerous items to commit crimes, or the use of firearms, explosives, toxins or other dangerous items to threaten to commit a crime.
(5) destruction of military, communications, transportation, energy, safety or other important facilities, sufficient to cause serious imminent danger to public safety;
(6) perpetrating violent conduct such as murder or taking hostages, threatening the lives of citizens;
(7) targets designated in state provisions for guarding, defense or protection that are violently attacked or destroyed, or where there is imminent harm of there being attacked or destroyed.
(8) gang or armed robbery of public or private property;
(9) group fights, riots and other serious undermining of the social order, that cannot be stopped by other means;
(10) the use of violence to resist or obstruct the people’s police in the lawful performance of their duties or violent attack on people’s police, endangering police lives.
(11) where detained or imprisoned person riot, revolt, commit violence or escape;
(12) theft from persons in custody or imprisoned;
(13) Resisting arrest or fleeing after perpetrating arson, flooding, causing explosions, murder, robbery or other serious violent crimes;
(14) where criminals who are still carrying guns, explosives, toxins or other hazardous materials are escaping or resisting arrest.
(15) other circumstances where the laws and administrative regulations provide for the use of weapons.

Where people’s police use weapons in accordance with the preceding paragraph, and do not have time to give warnings or where giving warnings could result in more serious harmful consequences, weapons may be used directly.

Following the recent spate of police gun violence, and the increased presence of guns on the streets, experts are calling for more detailed guidelines on when police should use their weapons.

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Jeremy Daum is a Senior Fellow of the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, based in Beijing, with over a decade of experience working in China on collaborative legal reform projects. His principal research focus is criminal procedure law, with a particular emphasis on protections of vulnerable populations such as juveniles and the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, and is also an authority on China’s ‘Social Credit System’. Jeremy has spoken about these issues at universities throughout China and in the U.S.; and has co-authored a book on U.S. Capital Punishment Jurisprudence for Chinese readers. He is also the founder and contributing editor of the collaborative translation and commentary site, dedicated to improving mutual understanding between legal professionals in China and abroad.
He translates, writes, edits, does web-design, graphic design, billing, tech support, and social media outreach for China Law Translate.

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