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First plainclothes police station in China
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There is no name plate on the office building, but the inhabitants, 400 policemen, are spreading themselves over bus stops and ports under the guise of shoe polishers, peddlers and pedicab drivers. China's first plainclothes police station has aroused the people's curiosity: Who are these unmarked police officers? How are they able to carry out their job without uniforms bearing number-badges? How will their behaviors be regulated as they enforce the law incognito? And how will they be able to protect themselves with no identification?

Established on December 6, 2004, the plainclothes investigation branch of the Kunming Public Security Bureau in Yunnan Province consists of five groups and 31 squadrons.

The branch's 400 policemen dispense themselves in areas noted for high crime rates, such as bus stops, ports and villages. "Every policeman has at least two pieces of old clothes he uses as a disguise," said veteran police Yang Ping, also the deputy head of the first group. "During these stings, I have recovered second-hand mobile phones, served as a pedicab driver and even resold treasury bonds at the gates of banks. Compared to an ordinary investigation, undercover operations make me feel more like a professional policeman."

Targeting suspects before cases occur, a new mode of police work

"Plainclothes policemen were originally organized to fight against pickpockets," said Ma Ning, director of the undercover investigation branch. However, urbanization has enlarged their scope and types of cases; street crimes can emerge unexpectedly. In order to combat well-concealed and potential street crimes, in 2004 the plainclothes branch was established to enrich the local police force.

"Undercover police have no fixed jurisdiction. We can dispatch them based on our analysis of crime intelligence and lower an effective crime dragnet," said Ma.

Another advantage of plainclothes is to target suspects before crimes are committed.

"In the past, we targeted suspects after receiving case reports. Now we can target suspects and conduct investigation before crimes are committed and catch them on spot," said Ma.

Observation, monitoring and tailing are three basic methods adopted by plainclothes police. Last year, a serial robbery case aroused public panic in the downtown area. Since most of the offenders were teenagers, police officers were unable to bring them to court.  But through secret monitoring and tailing, plainclothes police collected evidence on the suspects behind those teenagers and uprooted the entire gang, arresting 12 suspects and recovering over 100,000 yuan in cash.

Based on an intelligence platform, plainclothes police analyze information to target crimes. They are not authorized to arrest suspects without valid evidence. On the other hand, in order to conserve police forces, undercover officers follow the principle of "investigation and arresting only" and later transferring suspects to the local public security bodies for further investigation.

Since its establishment, the branch has arrested 7,244 suspects and uprooted 341 criminal rings. Thanks to the participation of undercover cops, the total police force has remained unchanged, but police prevention and control on main streets of Kunming has risen by 16 % and in crime-prone areas by 34%.

Inquiry into plainclothes police's jurisdiction of enforcement

The public may be interested in plainclothes police, but few are willing to cooperate with them. "If a plainclothes policeman comes to me and asks me to collaborate without revealing his identity, I will probably not tell him anything," said Mr. Chen, a Kunming citizen. "I value my privacy."

"Undercover police are an important part of the police force," said Jiang Ming'an, a professor from Peking University's Law School. They play an important role in cases of drug trafficking, organized crimes and stealing.

According to Ma Ning, the plainclothes branch is an independent organ authorized to file cases and start investigations. When asked about plainclothes policemen's enforcement jurisdiction, Ma said: "We share the same jurisdiction with all the other public security organs. We can handle everything authorized in the public security organs by laws, including maintaining public order."

However, some experts hold different opinions.

"Plainclothes organs are set up to carry out investigations rather than maintain public security," said professor Jiang. "Public security falls in the column of administration cases. According to the Law on Administrative Punishment and the Law of Public Order Administration and Punishment, law enforcement officers should identify themselves and produce certificates while on duty. It's obviously not suitable for plainclothes.

"Public order cases such as theft or robbery that are hardly distinguished from crimes or have violated criminal law may be handled by undercover cops. In other cases, plainclothes police should stand clear from them."

But Ma Ning, director of the plainclothes branch, confirmed that his men would identify themselves before they arrested suspects. "Our enforcement strictly abides by all relevant stipulations of the Criminal Law," said Ma. "We only conceal our identity while collecting and investigating evidence. For example, ordinary police would collect evidence openly while conducting an investigation, say, of an illegal bicycle sale. But undercover cops would pretend to be a specific group of people close to the suspects, such as buyers, so as to figure out their suspects' whereabouts and collect sufficient evidence."

A qualified plainclothes police must be highly intuitive and have the capacity to transform himself 72 ways, just like the fabled the Monkey King. These abilities would enable an undercover officer to masterfully disguise himself and see through suspects.

Experts call for regulations on plainclothes police's right to enforce law

"We need a law to regulate plainclothes police's operation," noted Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer. The People's Police Law stipulates that technical investigative measures are conducted through a strict approval process. But the law doesn't cover all the necessary details.

Experts have warned that vague clauses in the law will result in plainclothes police abusing their power due to inadequate public supervision and it might put other officers at risk as well.

"There is no stipulation regarding an undercover cop's right to self defense," said professor Jiang. "We must have solid strategy and tactics in place before officers conduct undercover assignments or secret investigations."

Jiang has called for more laws and regulations to clarify the undercover police jurisdiction, the enforcement process and to ensure self-protection and public supervision. "Only laws or regulations can tackle the problems at their root," he said.

( by Huang Shan November 2, 2007)

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