The Korea Herald


Policing across cultures in the multicultural era

By Paul Kerry

Published : March 8, 2011 - 17:13

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Like any police force, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency depends on communicating with the public to do its job.

The community SMPA now serves has never been more diverse in terms of language or culture, posing new challenges for communication between citizens and police. SMPA established the Foreign Affairs Advisory Committee last June to help dialogue between expatriates and the police.

Eights months on, Sergeant Kim Wan-suk, the committee’s founder, and two of his colleagues in the Foreign Affairs division spoke to The Korea Herald about the committee and SMPA’s relationship with expats.

“The committee was set up for three purposes: to protect human rights (of foreigners) and to support multicultural families, and prevent crime,” explained Kim, through interpretation, joined by Inspector Jang Ho-geol and Sergeant Moon An-sik at SMPA headquarters in Jongno-gu.

The committee, which includes representatives from English teachers’ organization ATEK, and the Filipino, Chinese and Nigerian communities, is tasked with making policy recommendations to SMPA on expat-police relations.

Mark Barthelemy, then-ATEK media committee chair, gave three presentations at the first meeting on how police officers could overcome language barriers. According to Kim, however, the first meeting was more focused on establishing friendly relations, rather than outlining any specific plans.

Kim added that although no specific date had been set for the next meeting, communication channels were open to expat representatives. He envisaged that the committee would meet once or twice a year.

The three officers all agreed that relations with the expat community were good on the whole.

“Yes we do have barriers between foreigners and police officers but still we have not had any big problems, just minor problems,” said Kim.

One hurdle, according to Jang, can be when police officers respond to a call from a foreign national. While a simultaneous interpreting service means non-Korean speakers should be able to make 112 emergency calls without trouble, language is sometimes an issue when officers arrive at the scene.

“Usually Korea police officers, they don’t speak English very well, so that can be inconvenient for foreigners,” said Jang.

But Kim stressed that SMPA had a wide array of resources to help foreigners overcome such hurdles. He said that every police station in the country has a foreign affairs section with at least one officer who can speak English and Chinese to a reasonable level. More comprehensively, there is Before Babel Brigade, a translation phone service for foreigners, covering 17 languages.

Kim noted that one of the side effects of immigration has been particular crimes such as scam marriages. But he stressed that the police see foreigners as no more likely to commit crime than the general population.

“When it comes to law and order and public security matters, we don’t think Koreans and foreigners are different. They are the same actually,” said Kim.

“But we recognize that foreigners have a different culture, different history and different language; that is why the foreign affairs section exists,” he added.

But it is not uncommon for expats to complain that the Korean media stereotypes foreigners as crime-prone. Is the SMPA concerned that the public think foreigners commit more crime?

“There are crimes committed by foreigners and also there are crimes committed by Koreans, so there is no difference about these criminals. The thing is ... the difference comes from the individual,” said Moon.

Kim pointed out that while the number of crimes committed by foreigners has increased in recent years, so has the number of foreigners living in Korea, going some way to explain the rise. In 2007, the last year for which comparable statistics were available, the crime rate among foreigners was 1.4 percent, compared to 3.4 percent for Koreans.

“There are some people who are worried about crime committed by foreigners … but we don’t think it is justified,” said Kim.

And have the police considered measures to help change such attitudes?

“We will take a good look into Seoul citizens and if it is needed we will research Seoul citizens’ thoughts and opinions,” said Kim, adding that public relations campaigns to counter negative perceptions could be considered in the future.

Then there is the other side of the coin when it comes to harmonious relations. Do they believe that expatriates should do more to learn the culture and language to adapt to Korean society?

None of the officers thought so.

“I think every person who lives in Korea is learning Korean culture,” said Moon, adding that simply living here makes it inevitable that expats absorb the language and culture to some extent.

If the three officers had one overriding message for expats here, it was that they needn’t feel reluctant to contact the police, no matter the language or cultural hurdles.

“They can call the 112 emergency call center and we do have a BBB system so they can tell police officers what their situation is. A police patrol car will arrive there in 3-5 minutes,” Kim said.

“Even though there could be a problem with language, we do our best to protect Koreans and foreigners as well.”

By John Power ( )