Being a teenager is a tricky period even in the best of times. Facing adolescence in the glare of social media coupled with modern day school pressures must make it an even more confusing time. My heart really goes out to the family of teenager Benjamin Lee (https://theindependent.sg.sg/i-wanna-be-friends-with-you-in-my-next-life-grieves-friend-of-14-year-old-who-committed-suicide-after-police-interrogation/) whose suicide after a police interrogation has now made headlines in Singapore.
A few issues of concern have been raised since this episode and for this death not to have been in vain, lessons have to be learnt in how we handle interrogations of minors.
From the few police statements that have been made, it would appear that the police have already presumed Lee’s guilt. Whatever has happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? While Singapore prides itself on its efficiency, has that seeped into our law enforcement system to our detriment? Is everything so results oriented that having a cased solved becomes more of an overriding concern than the welfare of a minor?
More disturbing is the revelation that guardians or parents are not permitted to be present with minors when they are being interrogated. (https://theindependent.sg.sg/death-of-14-year-old-killed-himself-after-police-interrogation-raises-many-issues-says-filmmaker/)
Apparently the police are concerned that if parents or guardians are present, they would not get the truth. For this to be true, the minor in question would have to be a very confident and savvy kid who is well acquainted with the legal system which I suspect is very rare.
Why then is a practice developed to safeguard something that is reasonably rare at the expense of the welfare of a minor? Could this be a hangover from the 60s and 70s when kids grew up fast and gangsterism was rife? Are these concerns still relevant today?
I would imagine that having the reassuring presence of a parent or guardian present would give the minor in question the confidence to tell the truth!
Grown men have been known to confess to crimes they didn’t commit under a variety of circumstances. They might be manipulated, under duress or have no way to prove their innocence and just cave under the pressure of the barrage of accusations.
Remember, the interrogation room is not going to be a friendly atmosphere. It will likely be intimidating and unfamiliar. If adults fall prey to false confessions, much less an adolescent who is plucked out of the security of school and plunged into the scary environment of a police station all within a matter of hours without any time to even mentally prepare himself!
His statement “I did not do it, but since everyone thinks that I did it, then I did it” is particularly telling of his state of mind after the interrogation. As a teenager, he must have feared gossip, social media backlash and public ostracisation. He must have been led to believe that the evidence against him was so overwhelming that he had no way out.
This was a conclusion that he came to without the support of his parents or the advice of a legal adviser and may have not even been true! It may just have been an interrogation tactic!
Many may wonder why he would kill himself if he really were innocent. But that would be ignoring the emotional response that can occur as a result of a sudden and unexpected interrogation.
Remember, this isn’t a hardened criminal. This is a school boy who has most likely never seen the inside of an interrogation room outside of television!
Besides, even if he was guilty, he should still be protected as a minor and have his parents present! Guilty people have rights too, much less minors.
In our course to be efficient and get things done, have we forgotten that it is individuals that we are dealing with and not statistics and data? It isn’t just about closing the case. It is about solving it to ensure that justice is done and that minors are protected.
I think it is high time the police reviewed and updated their procedures when dealing with minors.
GHUI WRITES: Did police presume the 14-year-old was guilty at the onset of investigations?