In light of the incident where a man who was trying to flee a roadblock was shot dead there has been much speculation as to the police protocol and concerns on the justification for the police to use deadly force under such circumstances.
While this is a rightful concern and one that should be discussed, it is necessary to appreciate the context in this case to understand the situation fully. When all is said and done, the truth here is that this was an extremely rare and very unfortunate confluence of factors but something that could not have been avoided.
First of all, the police protocols that are in place – be it for roadblocks or otherwise – are there to ensure safety and security as a foremost priority. The police are certainly not looking to kill people. In fact, it is in the best interests of officers to ensure nobody dies on their watch because it is an extremely traumatic aftermath for an officer who has discharged his weapon, let alone killed someone using deadly force.
How does a typical roadblock look like?
A ‘normal’ or ‘routine’ roadblock would comprise police cars parked on one lane (or sometimes diagonally across two lanes) to form a sort of physical bottleneck that filters vehicular traffic into one lane, so that officers who man the stop can look into the vehicle and ask some questions of the driver.
The objective for the officer at the stop point would be to establish if there is a need to pull over the car and check further. If the officer decides this is necessary, then he would instruct the driver to drive forward past the parked police cars and stop to the side of the road where other officers would be standing by to conduct further checks, including screening the person’s particulars for any record and checking the vehicle if necessary.
In such an instance, the driver can simply speed off after moving past the police vehicles instead of stopping to the side – which is often the case in fleeing from roadblocks. This would happen quite fast and no one would be in any real danger, especially the officers who would be away to the side waiting. Similarly, this would happen after passing the parked police cars acting as the ‘filters’ and thus no damage to property would occur. No officer in his right mind would even think of drawing his weapon in such a situation.
This is primarily the scenario that plays out at all such ‘subject fled’ situations at police roadblocks here in Singapore, unless the driver was so drunk or drugged that he were to lose control of the vehicle as he approached the stop point. But even if that happens, the instinctive reaction of the officers at the scene would be to get out of the way quickly simply because shooting at the driver or car has no guarantee of stopping the danger posed to them.
Was this a normal roadblock?
Since the 9-11 attacks, security processes worldwide have naturally become heightened, especially for high-level events. It is no different in Singapore and police roadblocks near a high-profile event to screen all human or vehicular traffic would have become standard practice. These roadblocks though would be done differently and situations viewed more seriously than at normal roadblocks because the objective is to prevent acts of terror, not just crime detection or showing police presence.
The Gurkha Contingent is well known as a fearless and decisive force and it is no secret that Gurkha officers are deployed when absolute security and safety is paramount. This is why they protect the president and other key installations around Singapore, and were the ones activated to hunt fugitives like Mas Selamat and the armed gunmen who landed on Pulau Tekong in March 2004. If Gurkhas had been deployed to supplement security enforcement at roadblocks in conjunction with high-level events, the incident becomes very much different from a typical roadblock.
Any Gurkha-led police check will be very definitive and there are only two modes in their evaluation of any given situation – threat or no threat. The moment there is a threat exposed, their response will be absolute because that is why we have them for. In addition, the set-up for a police roadblock meant that a security check in relation to a high-level event would also be more sophisticated than just police cars filtering traffic.
So what happened here?
Based on the single shot aimed directly at the driver of the vehicle (based on the bullet hole on the windscreen), it is clear that it was not fired from the Taurus Model 85 .38 calibre revolver used by police officers. Instead, it makes more sense that it was expertly fired from a rifle, which Gurkha officers are known to carry and in roles where they are largely known to be marksmen.
So in all probability, the driver of the vehicle (regardless of reason) decided to drive off and rammed into the barricade. As he was trying to plough through this temporary structure (thereby causing the damage to the vehicle’s bonnet), the Gurkha officers (who are trained to react at lightning speed and who are by default trained ready to discharge their weapons at all times) would have given him one warning to cease and desist before firing the shot to stop the driver.
Perhaps the real tragedy is the simple fact that had the driver been stopped at any other roadblock in Singapore that night, he would have gotten away or just been arrested. He was incredibly unlucky to find himself in that particular place and time.
As painful as it sounds, no matter how we apply hindsight to this incident, there really wasn’t a better way to manage the security situation without actually comprising it – to allow even one vehicle to break through the roadblock would have meant a potential terrorist attack was not thwarted.