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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Police tactics draw scrutiny

People receive a blessing in Tbong Khmum province at the end of a funeral ceremony on Wednesday
People receive a blessing in Tbong Khmum province at the end of a funeral ceremony on Wednesday for a boy killed in a hostage situation. Heng Chivoan

Police tactics draw scrutiny

Questions are being raised over police tactics after a 12-hour standoff with a man who took his 6-year-old nephew hostage on Tuesday ended in the tragic killing of the child.

Locals yesterday slammed the police’s seeming reluctance to use lethal force on the perpetrator until after the boy had been stabbed, while officials said they had followed protocol and tried to minimise harm to both the boy and his captor.

“The authorities have all kinds of guns. Why didn’t they use them?” said Meas Sophea, one of many capital residents who saw the tale reported on TV. “And why did they use them after the boy had already died in their hands?”

However, military police spokesman Kheng Tito said that the mixed forces responding to the scene in Tbong Khmum province may have been caught off-guard.

“Military police are trained to save people in emergencies, such as catastrophes or natural disasters. We have intervention units, especially in cases of terrorism or kidnapping. We have demolition and liberation teams who are trained daily,” he said.

Provincial police chief Mao Pov said that throughout the standoff police tried a number of tactics to end the situation without resorting to deadly force.

“We have to look at the real situation, whether or not the perpetrator will listen to us. And if he does not, we have to shoot to defend ourselves, and there is no law banning us from shooting him,” he said.

“It is not that we are not trained. We already tried all kinds of techniques.”

Police attempted to incapacitate Him Sokna, 22, using smoke guns and an energy drink laced with sedatives. When the smoke caused Sokna to move away from his nephew, Pha Chharan, police tried to rescue the boy, only to find he was tied to a pillar.

Officers then retreated as Sokna, whose family had noticed his mental health deteriorating, advanced brandishing knives. Though Sokna was clearly a risk to the child, himself and the authorities, police refrained from shooting him, because “he is still a human being”, Pov said.

After officers retreated, Sokna stabbed the boy. Moments later, he was shot dead in a hail of bullets. Chharan died in his mother’s arms on the way to hospital.

Chan Soveth, a senior monitor with rights group Adhoc, said that when young children are involved, the police should be prepared to take any action necessary to protect the life of the child.

“In this case, the perpetrator was a madman and they should have taken all necessary measures to save the boy’s life . . . but the case has shown that our officers are careless and irresponsible,” he said.

“It demonstrates that our authorities are short of skills.”

Contingents of provincial and military police were dispatched, arriving at the scene in Tbong Khmum province at about 11am. A detachment of police from the Ministry of Interior was also present.

John Muller, managing director of local security company Global Security Solutions, said the forces should have been prepared to respond to the situation.

“The police and military police are well trained, so whether they had the right people there or not, I don’t know,” he said.

Officials yesterday would not confirm which units from the ministry it had deployed and gave no indication that an investigation into police actions would be conducted.

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