Public nuisance law would protect Shanghai’s resources
Published: Apr 20, 2015 07:48 PM
Shanghai police and rescue teams were dispatched to Suzhou Creek on Thursday afternoon after the 110 emergency hotline received a distress call from a citizen claiming that his five family members, including a pregnant daughter-in-law, had fallen into the water. Just as police arrived at the scene, the caller himself jumped into the creek to frantically search for the victims.

After dredging parts of the 125-kilometer winding waterway, known to locals as Wusong River, the orange-clad crew failed to turn up any bodies. The caller, surnamed Shen, was questioned further by authorities in hopes of gleaning more information about his supposedly drowned family members. Several bystanders also claimed to have witnessed a number of people, fluctuating from two to eight depending on who was asked, falling into the water.

Several hours of searching and investigating continued until authorities realized they'd been had. Nobody except Shen had fallen into Suzhou Creek. The whole tragedy had been made up.

According to local media reporting at the scene, Shen was suspected of having mental problems. This is of course the most obvious explanation of someone who would fabricate such an erroneous report of an emergency.

What should concern us as citizens of this city, however, is who should bear the cost of this elaborate yet unnecessary rescue attempt? Specific figures relating to the incident have not yet been released by officials, but the expense of dispatching dozens of emergency personnel, including firefighters, marine police and PSB officers, as well as a rescue vessel and search equipment, might range upwards of six figures.

The legal consequences of making a false police report must also be swiftly decided, for in Shanghai there are presently no specific administrative regulations in place to deal with cases like this.

What we are left with, then, is an unprecedented incident that local authorities should seize on to not only draft new policies to protect peace officers, and municipal coffers, from costly hoaxes, but to educate the public on the consequences of "crying wolf."

And what should these consequences be? In the case of Shen, nothing has yet been publicly disclosed about his intentions, but regardless of his mental stability, he, his family or his custodians should assume responsibility for diverting emergency service resources away from legitimate emergencies, which might have lead to loss of life elsewhere. Normally, the municipality would foot the bill of an actual emergency where public servants are called in, that is what governments are for. But it should not be the government's responsibility to accommodate liars.

And how about the onlookers at Suzhou Creek who also contributed to the public panic by going along with Shen's account? Were they colluding in the farce, or was this a rare instance of "collective hysteria?" Without interrogation it might not ever be known, but certainly a public campaign about our civic duty as witnesses is in order.

In Western countries such as the US, filing a false police report or making a false alarm can result in a criminal conviction as well as fines and other civil penalties. That Shanghai's police are not always speeding around the city, sirens blaring, like their American counterparts is a testament to our country's low violent crime rate, one of the lowest in the world, and our high rate of public safety. Nonetheless, it does not mean that our emergency service agencies are idle.

On the contrary, with only 9,500 firefighters and an estimated 40,000 police officers in a city of 24 million (that's just one police officer for every 600 residents, and one firefighter for 2,526 residents), it is imperative that every last one of our peace officers and emergency response crew members are standing by at all times.

The city can use the costly Suzhou Creek hoax, then, as an opportunity to take remedial measures to insulate our communities and agencies from irresponsible citizens by enacting a new Shanghai public nuisance law. Because in these amoral times, we can no longer depend solely on our collective social conscience.