Public Safety: Peace of mind While in Taiwan

Foreign residents and visitors find Taipei an easy and safe city to get around in. (photo: CNA)
This is Part 1 of the Special Report on Public Safety: Links to Part2Part 3,Part 4Part 5

Taiwanese and foreigners alike appreciate the low crime rates on the island.

With its splendid scenery, iconic Taipei 101 building, vibrant night markets, and many other attractions, Taiwan has much to offer visitors. What should also be added is that Taiwan has been recognized as one of the best locations in terms of public safety.

In the past 10 years, crime has decreased sharply. In 2015, there were a total of 297,800 prosecuted crimes in a population of some 23 million, compared with 512,788 crimes prosecuted in 2005 in roughly the same size population, according to the “2015 Crime Statistics” section of the Annual Review of Crime Rates issued by the National Police Agency (NPA) under the Ministry of Interior (MOI). The report notes that in 2015, the three most common crimes prosecuted in Taiwan were theft, drug use, and fraud, with figures of 66,255 cases, 49,576 cases, and 21,172 cases respectively.

By way of comparison, while South Korea is also considered a safe country to visit and has a similar social, economic, and political environment, it has a markedly higher crime rate than Taiwan. In 2007, for example, South Korea had slightly more than 1.95 million prosecuted crimes out of a population of some 50 million, according to the book Crime and Punishment around the World by Graeme R. Newman, professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany and a special adviser to the United Nations on crime and justice.

The United States fares even worse by comparison, with a total of more than 11 million arrests in 2014 out of a population of 318 million. While each nation is unique and direct comparisons are difficult, clearly the number of crimes committed in Taiwan is relatively low. In its 2014-2015 rankings, Presscave, a U.S. lifestyle publication, ranked Taiwan the second safest place in the world to visit, behind only Iceland and ahead of such locations as Austria, Canada, Japan, and Singapore.

AmCham Taipei members, in the qualify-of-life section of the Chamber’s annual Business Climate Survey, consistently praise the safety of Taiwan for themselves and their families. That aspect of life in Taiwan regularly is at or near the top of the list of the island’s most favorable attributes (along with the friendliness of the people).

When foreigners are the victims of a crime, or perpetrate one, their interaction with the law-enforcement authorities will usually be handled through the Foreign Affairs Police Service in Taiwan’s major cities and towns, whose staff consists of police officers with foreign-language ability, especially in English and Japanese. Many foreign residents comment on how courteous Taiwanese police officers tend to be compared with police in their home countries.


Staying out of trouble

As is true anywhere, of course, crime still exists on the island. But given the tight gun control in Taiwan, even when crime does occur, it rarely involves violence.

For Americans visiting Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) offers suggestions on how to stay safe while visiting. Katie Ortiz, chief of AIT’s American Citizen Services section, says that U.S. citizens traveling to Taiwan must remember “When you are in Taiwan, you are subject to Taiwanese law.”

Ortiz advises American travelers to register with the U.S. State Department by simply going on its website and filling out a brief form. Registering allows AIT to know when an American is in Taiwan and to provide support and assistance to that individual in the event of an emergency, such as evacuation during a natural disaster. However, while AIT can provide assistance and information to its citizens, it cannot interfere in prosecution by Taiwanese officials for laws broken while in Taiwan.

According to Ortiz, the most common run-ins with the law for Americans in Taiwan are drug-related. Taiwan has very severe laws against the possession, use, or distribution of narcotics, and punishments can include lengthy prison sentences. Ortiz’s number-one piece of advice for visiting or residing in Taiwan is: “Don’t do drugs.”

Outside of drug-related offenses, other criminal offenses committed by foreigners while in Taiwan are generally theft and fraud.

When Americans are arrested by Taiwanese police, U.S. officials work to ensure that they are treated by the same standards as Taiwanese citizens and that such standards meet international benchmarks. AIT will also regularly visit detained citizens to check on their condition. Furthermore, with the permission of the detained, AIT officials will contact the detainee’s family and friends. However, AIT staff cannot go to court on the detained person’s behalf or pay his or her legal fees.

On the other hand, when Americans are victims of crimes in Taiwan, they can turn to both the local police and AIT for help. In this regard, the primary role AIT plays is to guide Americans through Taiwan’s legal system to make sure that they receive the support that they need. Often in cooperation with local police, AIT will help U.S. citizens find the appropriate offices that they need to see or help them understand how to file charges.

As Taiwan has developed economically, its police force has also adopted more modern approaches to law enforcement and crime prevention. According to NPA officials, Taiwan’s police now embrace the philosophy of community policing to foster a cooperative relationship between police and communities. Police officers at the grassroots level are instructed by their superiors to build relationships with people in the communities they serve, and to understand local concerns and how to make the communities safer and friendlier. Chen Kuo-en, Director-General of the NPA, even has a public Facebook account to allow community members to engage in dialogue with him.

Perhaps because Taiwan normally is so peaceful, several high-profile criminal incidents that have occurred in recent years have been particularly shocking. The most recent such cases were the killing of a four-year-old child in Taipei earlier this year by an apparently mentally disturbed man and mass stabbings on the Taipei subway system that left four dead and dozens injured in 2014.

Responding to some public criticism that the police were derelict in their duty in not preventing these crimes, Huang Tsung-jen, NPA’s deputy director-general, notes that random violence is generally committed by mentally unstable individuals with no discernable motivation, and is consequently very difficult for police to monitor and deter. He adds that a major reason why these incidents are the subject of such intense media coverage is just because of their rarity – which actually supports the observation that the police are effectively deterring crime.

Most large cities in Taiwan have installed CCTV cameras in many locations, allowing police to monitor happenings and make quick arrests when a crime does occur. Huang emphasizes that Taiwan is a safe environment and efforts are continuously being made to make it even safer.