Whereabouts of 2 senior police officers under question in Itaewon crush investigation

SEOUL– The whereabouts of two senior police officers at the time of the deadly Halloween crowd crush have emerged as a focal point of an investigation into the tragedy that killed more than 150 people in Seoul’s Itaewon district.

Police have been under fire following revelations that about a dozen emergency calls came in warning of a dangerous level of overcrowding in Itaewon in the few hours leading up to Saturday’s crush but police did little to prevent the tragedy that killed least 156, mostly people in their 20s.

Fueling the criticism, police acknowledged Friday that National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun was out of contact at the time of the accident because he was sleeping while on a visit to the central city of Jecheon, about 120 kilometers south of Seoul.

It was two hours after the crush happened that the police chief learned of the crush.

Yongsan Police Station chief Lee Im-Jae, one of the two senior officers under investigation, was also found to have arrived at the Itaewon police substation at 11:05 p.m., some 50 minutes after the crush happened, though an earlier situation report had shown that he arrived there right after the crush.

The finding further fuels questions about why it took 1 1/2 hours for him to get to the substation, just 2 kilometers away from a restaurant where he had been having dinner with officers from his office after overseeing operations in response to a series of civic rallies held in other parts of Yongsan Ward.

Another key question about him rests on that he reported the emergency situation to Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency chief Kim Kwang-ho belatedly at 11:34 p.m., leaving the top police command in the dark for more than an hour.

At the time Kim learned of the situation, dozens of people had been in a state of cardiac arrest already.
The other senior officer under investigation, Ryu Mi-jin, was in charge of situation monitoring at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. She was accused of neglecting her duties to promptly recognize the emergency situation and report it to the Seoul police chief and to the situation room of the National Police Agency.

Ryu was out of the office at the moment the deadly accident took place.

Having belatedly recognized the crush in Itaewon, Ryu issued an alert to Seoul police chief Kim only after 11:39 p.m. and then to the situation room of the National Police Agency, but she was absent at the critical moment of the Itaewon accident.

An emergency monitoring office in charge at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency is a “linchpin,” connecting police stations with the National Police Agency for emergency response in cases that need immediate police intervention.

Both Lee and Ryu have been sidelined from duty and put on disciplinary “standby.”

A separate police report released Thursday also showed a riot police squad affiliated with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency was on standby near Itaewon on the night of the accident but had not been mobilized for any public order maintenance efforts Saturday night.

Also on Friday, a senior interior ministry official said a disaster response hotline linking regional governments with the fire and police agencies and the Coast Guard did not function properly that night due to a lack of sufficient prior training.

Earlier this week, the special police investigation team raided the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the Yongsan Police Station, and six other offices, and seized police work logs from the night of the accident as part of the investigation into the bungled police response.

The investigation team said Friday a total of 85 witnesses, police officers and others have been questioned so far, but no one has been booked for an official police investigation as a suspect.

The office of President Yoon Suk-yeol said Thursday “various other options” could be considered if the police’s internal investigation into the case fails to satisfy the public.

The main opposition Democratic Party has called for a parliamentary investigation into the case, while the ruling People Power Party has called for restoring the prosecution’s investigative powers through a revision of a law that limits them.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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