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Door sensors dead at Osaka police station where rape suspect escaped

Junya Hida (Photo courtesy of Osaka Prefectural Police)

OSAKA -- Residents of a neighborhood around a police station in an Osaka Prefecture city were not informed a rape suspect was on the loose until about nine hours after the man's escape from police custody surfaced on Aug. 12.

Junya Hida, 30, an unemployed man with no fixed address, escaped from a visitation room at the Tondabayashi Police Station on the night of Aug. 12 after speaking with a lawyer. Although the police station noticed he was missing at 9:43 p.m., it wasn't until 6:28 a.m. the next day that the Osaka Prefectural Police alerted local residents via an email system for distributing crime prevention information.

Furthermore, Tondabayashi Police Station only notified the municipal board of education about the incident after 7 a.m. on Aug. 13, in response to which the board instructed schools in the city to lock their gates, among other measures.

"We prioritized our investigation and did what ought to be done, but we will need to examine our response," said an official at the police station.

The prefectural police had installed sensors on the doors to visitation rooms at all of its 65 police stations following the 2007 suicide of a suspect at a police station in Tochigi Prefecture. However, the Tondabayashi station had removed the sensors' batteries. As a result, the end of Hida's meeting with the attorney went unnoticed for roughly an hour and 45 minutes. The prefectural police are investigating the operation of the sensor system at the station.

In the Tochigi Prefecture case, a suspect who had been slapped with a fresh arrest warrant for murder hanged himself inside a visitation room at the Utsunomiya Chuo Police Station following a meeting with a lawyer in August 2007. He killed himself after being left alone in the room for over an hour, after the police officers failed to notice the meeting had ended.

In response to the incident, the National Police Agency instructed all prefectural police departments to take countermeasures. The Osaka Prefectural Police installed the door sensors at all its stations in fiscal 2007 so officers at detention cells would be notified, with a sound and a light, of a lawyer or other visitors opening a visitation room door. It also introduced a rule that police stations would ask lawyers to let officers know when their interview with a client was over.

However, Tondabayashi station officials decided that such sensors were unnecessary because it "asked lawyers and suspects to say when their interviews are over."

Hida's attorney did not tell officers that their interview with the suspect had wrapped up, indicating that the police station's in-house rule was not being followed strictly. Prefectural police, meanwhile, said the lawyer was not obliged to notify the officers.

It has emerged that the Tondabayashi station was the only facility among Osaka's 65 police stations that had removed the sensor batteries. "It is possible that police officers at the station took it into consideration that a sound ringing near the detention cells in the middle of the night could wake up other detainees," said a senior prefectural police official.

In a related development, the Osaka Prefectural Police on Aug. 13 gave fresh instructions to all its 65 stations to deploy police officers in a room next to the visitation room when a suspect is seeing a lawyer. In Hida's case, the room next door was vacant as the meeting was at night, allowing his getaway to go unnoticed. The prefectural police also asked stations to check if the door sensors are working normally and to make sure to return suspects to their detention cells immediately after their interviews with their lawyers.

According to the prefectural police, when a lawyer meets with a suspect, they pass a reception desk before entering the visitation room next door. While officers are stationed at the reception desk from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. on weekdays, it is unmanned at night and on weekends.

Hida allegedly forced open an acrylic partition before fleeing the visitation room. The prefectural police have placed him on a wanted list on suspicion of aggravated escape, but have no clue as to his whereabouts.

(Japanese original by Takuya Murata, Hayaki Takeda and Kentaro Mikami, Osaka City News Department)

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