Tainan Police Murder: A Chance for Total Reform of Police Use of Force Training

Written by Wei-An Tsai.

Image credit: 12.23 總統出席「警政署署務會報」 by 總統府 / Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

​​In August 2022, the brutal murder of two police officers on duty in Tainan city sent shock waves through Taiwanese society. The two officers, Tu Ming-cheng (凃明誠) and Tsao Jui-chieh (曹瑞傑), were tipped about a stolen motorcycle and set out to investigate. However, they were later ambushed and killed by the suspect shortly after arriving at the scene, which was in an unpopulated area.​  

The two officers suffered fatal stab wounds, despite one carrying a gun. The issue of the timing to use firearms quickly became the centre of public debate. In apprehending the suspect on the run, the Interior Minister, Hsu Kuo-yung (徐國勇), instructed police officers “not to hesitate to open fire when faced with resistance.”

​​One month after the tragedy in Tainan, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed amendments to the Use of Police Weapons Act (警械使用條例, hereinafter “UPWA”). A major adjustment to the UPWA – Article 4 Paragraph 4 stipulates four situations under which firearms may be used without prior warning. Such situations are those that put the lives and bodily integrity of police officers or others at risk, including “the use of lethal weapons, dangerous objects or vehicles to attack, harm, hold hostage or coerce police officers or others,” and “when attempting to seize a police officer’s gun or other equipment that may cause harm or casualty.” ​ 

Before adding this new paragraph, UPWA already lays out basic principles for using police weapons. Article 4 Paragraph 1designates the circumstances under which the use of police knives and firearms is allowed (e.g., when a person to be arrested or detained by law resists arrest or attempts to escape). Article 6 of the UPWA requires police officers to use firearms only under urgent circumstances and to abide by the principle of proportionality. Article 7 further instructs officers to immediately cease using police weapons when the circumstances in Article 4 no longer exist. The requirements of “lawful reasons” and “proportionality” have been the guiding principles for police use of force. The real challenge lies in applying these principles in real-life situations, especially life-threatening ones. For example, how much prior warning or using less harmful weapons is enough before using firearms has always been an issue of contention in relevant cases. The new paragraph in Article 4 releases police officers of the burden of difficult split-second judgments by authorizing the prompt use of firearms under designated circumstances.  

​​Another recent event in Taiwan further sheds light on the complicated aspects of police use of force. This tragic event, however, took a different course and took the life of a Vietnamese migrant worker. In August 2017, police officer Chen Chung-wen (陳崇文) was dispatched to apprehend an absconded migrant worker, Nguyen Quoc Phi, who was reportedly destroying private properties and attacking others.​ After Chen arrived at the site along with a civil defence volunteer, Lee, Nguyen Quoc Phi assaulted Lee and attempted to escape by approaching a police vehicle. After failed attempts to take control with an extendable baton and pepper spray, Chen fired nine shots at Nguyen Quoc Phi within twelve seconds and eventually caused his death. Taiwan High Court ruled that Chen’s act violated the principle of necessity and that the harm caused was disproportionate to the intended administrative benefits. Chen was convicted of negligent homicide but was given a conditional suspended sentence. 

The case of Nguyen Quoc Phi reminds us that the principle of proportionality is never easy to implement and that excessive use of force and its judicial aftermath may also impose great burdens on individual officers. The UPWA’s authorizing prompt use of firearms in urgent circumstances does not fully resolve the difficulties for police officers. The dangerous situations they face on duty should not be simplified as a single point of encounter. On the contrary, they are sequences of countless decisions and actions. Even if firearms are allowed, the principle of proportionality still governs the manner, intensity, and duration of how the shots should be carried out. There are inherent limitations to how words and rules can provide specificity and guidance in shifting law enforcement scenarios. Therefore, the problem remains as police officers struggle to translate the principle of proportionality into practice in these unpredictable and complicated situations.  

Taiwan does not face these problems alone. The U.S. has gone through substantive debates about police use-of-force reform. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1989 Graham v. Conner case, opines that an “objective reasonableness” standard should be adopted to set a constitutional limitation to police use of force in the process of arrests. But, similar to the principle of proportionality, the Graham standard has also been criticized for its vagueness and difficulty in applying it in specific situations. Especially after the police killing of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, and others in 2014, many commentators emphasized the importance of developing detailed use-of-force policies and training beyond Graham. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, for example, in its final report, proposes that police training should focus on the importance of “de-escalation and alternatives to arrest or a summons.”11  

Commentators in Taiwan also rightly point out that legislative reform is only half of the story and that sufficient efforts should be put into improving the quality of police training. A comprehensive investigative report by Taiwanese media, “The Reporter” (報導者), points out that current police training has become rigid and needs to be reformed to suit day-to-day operations and new challenges of modern society.​​ For example, the report suggests that traditional training and examination subjects like the “mixed arrest techniques” (綜合逮捕術), which combine Jujitsu, Taekwondo, Grappling, and Kuo Shu (國術), cannot help prepare police officers for the capricious situations they face on duty, because they are overly-focused on the fixed moves and their performative value.​ It also points out that the police community, in general, treats training sessions as a perfunctory routine. The idea that these training sessions may have life-saving impacts on individual officers has not yet taken root in the community. 

To conclude, the tragedy in Tainan should be a wake-up call that pushes for the reform of police training. The training should be based on solid, evidence-based evaluations and comprehensive reviews of past tragedies. They should also bridge the gap between theory and practice and equip police officers for high-risk situations.  

Moments of grief and anger after a tragic event may create momentum for reform. However, too often, politicians provide easy answers that serve as band-aids to appease public sentiments. If civil society accepts these easy answers, the public loses the chance to tackle the problem at its root and risks repeating past tragedies. Legislative reform after the Tainan tragedy is important in providing predictability and guidance for police officers in difficult situations. However, more future work needs to be done to reform police training, so that muscle memory, de-escalation techniques, and quick judgments can support every officer.

Wei-An Tsai is an S.J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School researching communications law and policy, with a primary focus on improving Taiwan’s media governance structures to protect the democratic processes from the influence of disinformation and information operations. Before joining Harvard Law School, Wei-An served in the Executive Yuan of Taiwan as a legal advisor to Minister without Portfolio, Lo Ping-Cheng. She completed the LL.M. program at Harvard Law School (requirements fulfilled, degree waived) and holds an LL.M. and a B.A. from National Taiwan University.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.

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