Virus puts police officers in harm's way

Virus puts police officers in harm's way

Special report: Getting up close to suspects key part of the job

Although some members of the public can safely work from home, police officers are combating crime at their own risk amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected 60 officers and put nearly 1,500 in self-quarantine.

Despite the enforcement of curfews, criminals are adapting and continue to prey on the vulnerable. While street crime has dropped during the lockdown, such crimes are expected to increase as curbs are gradually lifted.

But how can the police maintain law and order in an age of social distancing, especially when using their hands is a key part of the job?

Pol Maj Gen Thatchai Pitaneelaboot, deputy commissioner of Provincial Police Region 2, who oversees police affairs in the eastern provinces, said officers are at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

They cannot stay two metres away from criminals, even if criminals would rather they kept their distance.

"We use our hands all the time while apprehending suspects. Most break the night curfew to play cards and drink, basically they don't care about public health safety or take our advice," he said.

Other criminal activities which police are encountering at present include robbery and street racing before the night curfew kicks in.

Thieves often target those with cash at spots like ATM machines and gold shops, he said.

He was speaking at the Rule of Law and Development virtual forum held by the Thailand Institute of Justice on the changing nature of police and crime during the coronavirus outbreak.

Pol Maj Gen Thatchai said police are working as a team and if one of them is infected, he will likely spread the coronavirus to others, as happened recently in Chon Buri.

"After taking a criminal to the station, the officer was later found to be infected, requiring officers who came into contact with him to self-isolate."

This erodes manpower levels, affecting the police's ability to fight crime.

"This is important, because I think we will see a surge in crime once the lockdown is lifted," he said.

According to Assoc Prof Thatchai, the number of infected police currently stands at 60, 44 of whom have recovered.

Those who are believed to be at risk are self-isolating for 14 days.

Pol Maj Gen Thatchai said these police are particularly worried because they either live with their families or in police flats.

"If one of them is infected, he will be a super spreader," he added.

Asst Prof Pareena Srivanit, dean of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Law, proposed precautions for police, citing practices in New Zealand, South Korea and China.

"The government must offer protective equipment, including hand sanitiser, face masks and shields, goggles, gloves and coveralls.

"It should also arrange them into small teams and reserve forces to avoid quarantining them en masse," she said.

Asst Prof Pareena said they should have detailed guidelines on how to perform their duties in various situations.

"For example, they should refrain from having physical contact with vehicles and drivers and isolate prisoners or give them face masks. After they come into contact with criminals, they must report details of their encounters to see whether they should self-isolate," she said.

Meanwhile, Air Vice Marshal Krailert Thiennukul said authorities should increase the number of centres for police officers who have to quarantine for 14 days.

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