The shocking crime in which a man attacked a police box in the city of Toyama, stabbed an officer to death and stole his handgun, and went on to use the weapon to kill a construction company security guard in front of a nearby elementary school is only the latest in a series of incidents in which uniformed police officers have been assaulted by perpetrators who wanted their gun.

Just this April, the National Police Agency gave instructions to police organizations across the country to be on the alert against such attacks — with a sense of crisis that officers’ guns are constantly being targeted — and to perform drills to guard against officers being assaulted on the street or in police boxes. Steps must be taken to prevent such incidents from ever happening again.

The nation’s police box system, which has also become known overseas by its Japanese name — koban — functions as a pivot of neighborhood security and safety. While serving on the local front line during emergencies, officers stationed in police boxes serve multiple roles, from dealing with petty crimes to handling everyday complaints from neighborhood residents. That one such koban in Toyama was attacked Tuesday by a suspect armed with multiple knives, who killed the 46-year-old officer on duty and took his gun to shoot a security guard, was disturbing. Before he was shot and subdued by police on the elementary school’s premises, the suspect reportedly fired two shots into the school building. Thankfully, none of the school staff or roughly 400 children there at the time were harmed.

Uniformed police officers in principle carry a gun while on duty. Since 2013, there have been at least six cases in which uniformed officers, including those deployed at police boxes, were assaulted and robbed of their guns. In three of the cases, the gun was eventually fired. Such crimes had occurred before then as well, including a case in 1982 in which a former fire department employee hit an Aichi Prefectural Police officer with his car in Nagoya and took his gun. The gun was used in a subsequent fatal crime. The perpetrator, who was ultimately charged with serial murders dating to the 1970s, was sentenced to death and executed in 2000.

In 1989, a former member of the Self-Defense Forces fatally stabbed two officers at a police branch in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, as he attempted to steal their guns. In one of the more recent cases, an officer who rushed to an alleged crime scene after being alerted by a 110 call in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, was assaulted and robbed of his gun, and was seriously wounded as the perpetrator fired four shots.

The motives of the suspect in this week’s Toyama incident, a 21-year-old man who formerly belonged to the Ground Self-Defense Force and who remained hospitalized after being shot by the police, was still unclear, including whether he targeted the elementary school in his crime. After stabbing the officer, the suspect is believed to have cut the wire cord that connected the gun to the victim’s belt. In the wake of the incident, the NPA is reportedly considering a measure to improve the holsters used by uniformed officers to make it more difficult for people other than the officers themselves to remove the guns, by front-loading a plan that was to be implemented by 2020.

Aside from technical steps like this, staffing practices at police boxes nationwide should be subject to review. When it was assaulted by the suspect on Tuesday afternoon, the koban in Toyama was manned by two personnel — the 46-year-old officer and an unarmed “consulting” officer — a retired police officer mobilized to work part time to make up for the chronic manpower shortage at police boxes. After the uniformed officer was stabbed, the elderly assistance officer wrestled with the attacker before rushing to a nearby shop to request a 110 call.

There are currently 6,256 police boxes across the country, and each facility is normally manned 24 hours a day by two to three officers taking turns in shifts. But when one of the officers on duty is deployed to the scene of a crime or accident, only one officer might be left in charge of the police box — or possibly the koban could be left vacant when both officers are dispatched for whatever duty. An increasing number of retired police officers have been brought in as consulting officers to avoid such vacancies, but their presence is reportedly not enough to make up for the manpower shortage.

Whether current manpower levels at police boxes are sufficient to guard against possible assaults should be scrutinized in view of the latest incident.

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