As many of you might know, I was an officer with the Singapore Police Force (SPF) for ten years and spent quite an amount of that time plying my trade in Little India. I left the force in 2005 for a several reasons, one of which was the way the SPF was turning out to be. With so much documentation and miscellaneous duties, policing became too much about following procedures rather than fighting crime – and worse, victims, perpetrators and every human being in the process became just another inanimate feature of each case.
When I first heard about rumours of a riot in Little India, I expected it to be an exaggeration of some accident scene because of the crowd that had gathered. But as the story unfolded, it quite sounded like mob mentality had resulted in wanton public violence.
However, as the details eventually become established, it looks more and more like a typical incident that spiralled out of control. In my time as a police officer attending cases in the vicinity of Little India, coming across accidents on a crowded Sunday evening is not something new – as is coming across disputes, thefts and even robberies. In this case, (possibly) careless driving led to a pedestrian (or disembarking passenger, as some eye witness testimonies suggest) being run over.
Naturally, as anyone who has been to Little India will tell you, a large crowd formed at the scene of the accident and fellow countrymen of the injured person started to panic and look at ways to extricate him from the situation. However, the bus driver (perhaps out of fear) chose to remain inside and not move the vehicle, which only served to exacerbate the situation. The distraught bystanders who were trying to help then became desperate and tried to break into the bus in order to move it (notice the lack of aggression or violence in the video below).
As one can expect, dustbins and random pieces of equipment would not be able to break the tempered glass of the windows or doors and so, the desperation merely escalated. Eventually, the Police arrived at the scene and (probably) projected aloofness, which gave the impression that the officers didn’t care about the injured person or the despairing bystanders. By addressing the needs of the bus driver (who must have looked like the victim under the circumstances) the bystanders and others watching on the sidelines would have felt incredibly marginalised.
This is probably what infuriated others not directly involved with trying to rescue the injured person, and here is where the mob mentality truly set in, not any earlier. Having reached this tipping point, the bystanders would have reacted angrily and started attacking the Police vehicles and – by extension – the rescue vehicles (and personnel).
What I Would Have Done
After learning of these details I was actually surprised, because I have encountered similar elements and circumstances in other incidents while I was an officer myself. In fact I have brought things under control in similarly escalating situations before.
Basically, it is all about perception and a crowd of Indian workers expect sympathy and some concern for a fellow countryman who has been injured (or killed). Even with most of the situation already unfolding at the point when the Police arrived, I am fairly confident it could have been brought under control. I presume the situation to be a small crowd of distraught workers panicking and trying to gain access into the bus so that it can be moved to aid the rescue of the injured/dead person, surrounded by a larger crowd of onlookers (this has been corroborated by the description given in the letter from the Singapore High Commissioner to India).
Thus, upon reaching, the main persons to be addressed would have been the bus driver, the injured person and the group of distraught workers. Simply empathising with the distraught workers and letting them know that you are there to help the injured person would have actually calmed them down significantly and secured their cooperation (as opposed to unilaterally instructing them to stop their perceived aggression). By keeping the focus of this distraught group on rescuing the injured person (or his body), attention could have been diverted away from the driver inside the bus.
Next, getting the cooperation of the bus driver to move the bus or allow another officer to enter the bus to assist/direct the next course of action could have given control over to the officers at the scene since the crowd’s objectives (gaining access to the bus to move it and aiding the injured person) would have been met. The watching bystanders would have had no reason to get angry and would have been satisfied that the authorities were being fair to the situation.
Depending on how heated the atmosphere was at the time, the bystanders could even have been co-opted to help console and reason with the distraught group, which would have diverted focus of this larger group onto the injured person and the affected workers rather than deliberate on the cause of the accident.
With the crowd thus under control and basically responsive to the police officers at the scene, medical aid could have been rendered without much interference and any hostility. Even with the injured person being pronounced dead, the crowd reaction could have been limited to just the grief by discussing the deceased’s family instead of the cause of death (i.e. the accident) or about seeking justice. At this point, the bystanders could be asked to disperse or move back so that emergency vehicles and personnel can do the necessary. Once this space and distance has been created, the bus driver could be whisked away from the scene to further dissipate any tension at the point of accident.
All this could have been executed without the need for too many officers on duty and with no necessity for the SOC (i.e. ‘riot police’) being activated or for the need to recall all the off-duty officers of two police stations (which is what happened on Sunday night). While this is being portrayed as a major incident with all manner of pointless initiatives being rolled out as a knee-jerk reaction – not to mention the inevitable additional workload that awaits the already-overworked police officers of the area, in reality it all stems from a routine circumstance that has happened many, many times in various parts of Little India over the years.
This is why I am particularly saddened by this incident – an accident aftermath that was allowed to escalate into something so serious, and it is the first time since I left the SPF 8 years ago that I feel a tinge of regret – because had I not resigned, this riot may very well not even have happened.[spacer style=”1″ icon=”none”] This article was first published on Gangasudhan’s blog at http://gangasudhan.blogspot.sg/2013/12/i-could-have-stopped-riot.html