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Police-Citizen Relationship: Where do we go from here?

2015/5/11 — 11:07

Much has been written and said about the now ex-Police Commissioner Andy Tsang (曾偉雄). His sound bites were often fodder for the press. He dismissed a call for apology as “something of a fantasy” (天方夜談)after an 8-year old boy was hit in the eye by police pepper spray. He described his officers as “doting mothers” (慈母) when they were widely criticized for their heavy-handed, even violent, approach towards protesters in the Umbrella Movement.

Many of his sound bites generated enthusiastic satire. The most recent one was when he was asked on the eve of his retirement about the tense relationship between many Hong Kongers and the police under his leadership. Tsang responded: “if you asked kidnappers about police-citizen relationship, of course they would say that the relationship is bad”. 

It is fair to say that trust between the police and Hong Kongers is at an all-time low and the image of the police in the minds of many Hong Kongers has been tarnished beyond recognition.

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What has Tsang’s legacy achieved?  Is there more respect for the police force as a result of his hardline approach? Are Tsang’s utterances and police action really gaining the public’s trust that the police could enforce the law impartially? Or have these utterances provoked many into distrusting the police when such provocation could have been easily avoided, often by a few better-chosen words or simply keeping one’s mouth shut? 

It always takes two to tango. One cannot simply say that the police bear no responsibilities for the deterioration of the relationship between them and Hong Kongers. Most Hong Kongers of my generation (those born after the ICAC was created) were brought up respecting the police and believing that the police represented dependability and righteousness. Many boys aspired to be policemen. For the police’s image to deteriorate to this extent, it could not simply have been the work of a few angry protesters or sarcastic internet artworks depicting the police as fascist brutes. There must be a reason.

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For the 3 years after Tsang took office in January 2011, the United States Department of State pointed out in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that one of the most important problems in Hong Kong was “an increase in arbitrary arrest or detention and other aggressive police tactics hampering the freedom of assembly.” The 2011 report referred to the International Federation of Journalists’ observation that 2011 saw “a rapid erosion in basic civil liberties and that the government and in particular the police were becoming more aggressive against protesters”. These Country Reports are often cited in Court in asylum cases  – where life and limbs are at stake – as authoritative reports of the state of human rights in different countries. There must be some truth in their assessment of human rights in Hong Kong.

During the Umbrella Movement, instances of inappropriate police action abounded. There was the deployment of 87 canisters of tear gas on peaceful protesters, which the Hong Kong Bar Association described as an “excessive and disproportionate use of force”. Then there was the police superintendent caught on camera using a baton to whack the back of a protester running past. And how about the scene where police officers were standing on the sideline as suspected triad members chased off protestors in Mongkok? Or the harrowing footage of Ken Tsang (曾健超) being beaten in a dark corner by 7 police officers?

In a period of instability and tension, such as the one we now find ourselves in after the end of the Umbrella Movement, leaders of the police force must take steps to repair this torn relationship by a genuine display of impartiality and accountability. The public needs to trust that anyone who breaks the law, whether protester or police officer, will be treated equally and brought to justice. 

Clearly, the public is owed an explanation about the alleged assault on Ken Tsang by 7 police officers. We need to know that they will be properly investigated for these allegations. It is a question of trust. We need to know that if this happened to any one of us, we could depend on the police to pursue the culprit with the same determination as they would in any serious crime. We all rely on the police to gather the essential evidence so that justice is given a chance to be done.

The appropriateness of using 87 canisters of tear gas on largely peaceful protesters will continue to be hotly disputed. While the public knew that the police had a tough job to do in this massive public order situation, the Hong Kong Bar Association’s characterisation of this as an “excessive and disproportionate use of force” is a fair one. If the police believe, in hindsight, that they could have done better in handling the situation, then simply admitting it might help them regain some measure of respect from the public.

Much of policing is about offering positive protection of human rights. For instance, the right to life is protected by the laws creating offences of murder and unlawful killing. It is up to the police to prevent and detect such crimes.  On a wider level, police protection of the right to life manifests itself in their providing social services such as responding to calls of domestic violence and emergency services where life and limb are in jeopardy. 

Another example is the prevention and detection of theft offences, which directly contribute to the protection of the right to own property and the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of property. The police’s duty to protect other human rights such as the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and demonstration is no less than their duty to protect the right to life or the right to own private property.

Despite claims of political neutrality by the police, Hong Kongers need to see that the police can be trusted to discharge their mission without any hint of sympathy or hostility towards a suspect’s political affiliation. Be he yellow ribbon or blue ribbon, pro- or anti- establishment, if the law is broken, the police force will bring him to justice. If police officers broke the law, the police force will bring them to justice just the same. Being accountable will earn back the respect many Hong Kongers so desperately need to have for the police force. One can only hope that the new Police Commissioner will ease this tension in police-citizen relationship by showing that the police are indeed impartial and accountable. We Hong Kongers want to trust and respect our police force.

 

 

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