June 26, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

NOW, here’s the thing. You can expect a stiff response to a civil society activist who complains about being incarcerated. But you don’t expect the same response to a 74-year old woman who lives alone.

It seems that Police and Prisons Department believe in meting out the same treatment to everyone, regardless of age or type of crime. The sanctity of their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) is critical. Officers should leave their brains behind and refer to the book.

So Madam Gertrude Simon wrote to the ST Forum Page to say that elderly people should be treated better by the police and recounted what her mother went through over the weekend of March 4. Madam Josephine Savarimuthu went to Ang Mo Kio South Neighbourhood Police Centre to presumably report a missing pawn ticket. That is, she went to seek help.

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Because we are a smart nation, the police officer could immediately see that there was an outstanding warrant of arrest for her in 2016 for a town council-related matter. She was taken, handcuffed her daughter claimed, to Ang Mo Kio police station and then to the State Courts and then to Changi Women’s Prison.

What did the agencies say? They made an issue of her declining to contact anyone, not even for someone to bail her out. “If she had accepted the bail offer, she would have been released that day, and attended court another day,” it added.

In other words, it was her fault. She need not have spent time in jail; she chose to.

Obviously, police officers are not very good at dealing with old people who can become flustered and forgetful when they are stressed. Then you have to reckon with this stubborn streak that they have about not “bothering’’ their children; that they are able to take care of themselves.

You would have thought some officer would have the initiative to ask to see her belongings to find traces of her next-of-kin, or go down to the house, which must be in the neighbourhood, to gather some clues. This, presumably, would not be SOP. And of course, the police don’t want to seen as favouring someone with (gasp!) an outstanding warrant of arrest.

The agencies, probably in anticipation of arguments that the old lady was traumatised, made it clear that she “did not show any sign of being traumatised, and was alert when in police custody.” At the same time though, they also said that she was restrained at the hands and legs as part of Prison’s SOP, “which include preventing persons in custody from harming themselves.” But she wasn’t traumatised, was she? So why would she harm herself? Ahhh….that SOP again.

The saving grace was that the old lady was put in a medical ward and given her medicines. She stayed the weekend at the G’s expense. When her daughter finally knew what happen, she tried to see her mother on Sunday but couldn’t because it wasn’t visitation day. I don’t know about you, but if it was my mother, I would have barged through the prison gates and raised an almighty stink. Hey, this is an elderly person we are talking about, not an able-bodied pai kia.

MP Louis Ng would probably have cited this as an example of the public service without a heart. Should rules and SOPs be adhered to strictly even though a little empathy and common sense would serve better? It boggles the mind that the police could have forgotten that their strict adherence to SOPs was a factor that accounted for their late response to the Little India riot in December 2013.

Consider also what her summons was about. According to the old lady, it involved the wrongful placement of potted plants outside her flat, which amounted to an offence involving a $400 fine. Hardly a hardened criminal.

The agencies’ response is really, to put it bluntly, horrible. If the purpose was to maintain an image of immoveability because of a “duty to uphold the law”, it succeeded.

I wish the response would have been this instead:

We learnt with much regret what Madam Josephine Savarimuthu had to go through over the weekend when she was remanded at Changi. In hindsight, we could have done more to track down her next-of-kin and spared her the ordeal of incarceration. Law enforcement officers must uphold the law but they should also be sensitive in their one-on-one dealings with members of the public. While abiding by SOPs is important, this does not mean that no discretion is afforded to officers handling individual cases.

We will be looking for her missing pawn ticket.

Read part 1 here.

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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