Town patrolmen protect and serve
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- By day, the streets of the Songtan Entertainment District are a scene of hustle and bustle with hundreds of vendors clamoring for the business of both serious and window shoppers. The area known as 'downtown' houses multiple restaurants, clothing, gift and alteration shops. But at night, the area's main attractions are its cluster of bars and clubs.
One of the most popular areas for Department of Defense personnel stationed on the Korean peninsula, Songtan, can be an enjoyable place to relax and get away from the stressors of everyday life. To ensure people safely and responsibly partake in the area's festivities, Airmen from the 51st Security Forces Squadron Town Patrol keep their eye on all DOD members.
"Our primary mission is force protection followed by our law enforcement mission, which is what we spend most of our time doing off base," said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Cermeli, 51st SFS town patrol NCO in charge.
Each individual patrol team consists of two 51st SFS members and one Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army called a KATUSA, who serve as a liaison to any Korean-speaking person a team might encounter. In addition to the KATUSAs, town patrol members also work hand-in-hand with the Korean National Police, and on occasion, conduct training with other service's town patrol members.
"We work with the KNPs in our area of responsibility, which is three kilometers, or 1.8 miles, anywhere outside of the base," Cermeli said. "We really focus on the Songtan Entertainment District downtown though because within 300 meters there are roughly 140 bars."
Because of the number of establishments, Cermeli said each town patrolman must remain vigilant at all times.
"It takes aggressive, proactive patrolling to do the job right," he said. "We walk into every single bar at least once a night. The ones that are more popular where there are more incidents, we'll be in there multiple times, maybe 20 times in a single night. If you go to the major clubs, you'll see us."
Sometimes their proactive patrolling leads them to situations they weren't expecting.
"There was an incident where a military member found his way up to the top of the roof of one of the more popular bars, and when our NCOIC at the time got up there he noticed an individual standing at the edge with a coffee cup, just looking over it," said Staff Sgt. Cayman Lee, 51st SFS town patrolman. "Our NCOIC approached the individual and the guy said, 'there've been a lot of suicides in the Army lately,' and just kept looking down. Once we got him off the roof and back to the front gate, he started making a lot of suicidal gestures and comments. If they hadn't gone to the roof that night, he very well might have made the decision to jump."
Lee's experience may go against a common misconception about town patrol - that they are the 'fun police' or there to harm people, Cermeli said.
"We really are about saving people," Cermeli said. "They may think that we go around and bust heads, but that's not the truth at all. We stop people from making really bad decisions and we hope that our presence walking in and out of clubs brings people back to reality, because at the end of the day, they're in the military. We are guests here in Korea and we want to set a positive image."
The town patrol team, who're on duty seven days a week, start each shift with a briefing to bring each member up to speed on any new procedures, personal-readiness items that need to be taken care of and the local conditions downtown.
"We have an office downtown, so after our guard mount we'll eat then start our patrols," Cermeli said. "Once curfew time comes along, we'll meet in the middle and then initiate our sweeps."
Because of their position and prominence in the eyes of the local community, each town patrol member is hand selected to join the team.
"It's a big advantage for us because we really are the best of the best," Cermeli said. "As a leader it's nice to have people here who not only want to do the job or are excited to do it, but are also very good at their job and are dedicated to accomplishing the mission."
In the end, the 51st SFS town patrolmen are there to help those in need.
"Most people go their entire tour here without having any issues with us, even if they are out there drinking, and that's our goal," Cermeli said. "Every night is different, but every time we help somebody it gives you a good feeling knowing you prevented them from doing something that really could ruin their career."