15 November 2019
Several officers, some in plainclothes, wrestle a man to the ground. Photo: AFP
Several officers, some in plainclothes, wrestle a man to the ground. Photo: AFP

Why police officers are behaving like gangsters

Hong Kong’s police force used to be regarded as a respected pillar of society, the people who could be relied on to maintain law and order, who made our city safe and the envy of many metropolises.

It’s an image that was shattered overnight. Suddenly, according to critics, Hong Kong’s Finest has turned into a bunch of dreadful ogres, beating up innocent bystanders who happen to pass by the street where they are conducting clearing operations.

What has happened to our trusted men in uniform? Why have they suddenly lost their decorum and discipline?

Many small shopkeepers and taxi drivers must have cheered as police dismantled the barricades and tents in the Mong Kok protest zone earlier this week. The public started looking forward to normal business as vehicular traffic returned to the occupied streets.

But then things turned ugly. Why did the officers use excessive force in dealing with the unarmed protesters?

Sure, they must have grown tired of playing cat-and-mouse games with the activists who abandoned the protest sites only to return after a few hours. Their patience may have been frayed by two months of being on the receiving end of complaints about abusive behavior and misconduct. 

But why beat up and arrest innocent pedestrians and working journalists who were there for reasons other than to take part in the pro-democracy protest?

The frontline officers appeared to have lost control of their emotions — and their sense of balance.

But ultimately, the blame rests on the government that believes court orders and police action could resolve what is basically a political issue.

The chaos in Mong Kok also highlights the inadequacy of the police force on the tactical aspects of dealing with the civil disobedience campaign. 

The officers underwent months of training and preparations on how to confront activists in the streets — the deployment of troops, the most effective formations, ways to overcome resisting offenders, how to use devices such as pepper spray and tear gas. But on the ground, all these lessons proved to be lacking.

When instructed by their superiors to prevent activists from retaking the streets that have been cleared, these same officers are at a loss on how to carry out such an order. Who among the thousands of people walking in front of them are just ordinary shoppers and pedestrians and who are the protesters bent on re-occupying the streets?

And so the police officers had to play it by ear: those who refuse to immediately move forward or backward when told are activists, those who stray outside the sidewalk are activists, those who shout back at them are activists, those who give them mean looks are activists, and so forth.

All the indiscriminate arrests, haphazard actions and use of excessive force resulted from the fact that the officers had been instructed not to allow the activists to retake the streets, but they simply did not know how to do the job.

They are allowed to arrest anyone who looks suspicious, and haul them to the police stations. It doesn’t matter if the suspect has a press ID hanging prominently from his neck or is carrying a bunch of shopping bags. The discernment is done later. 

That explains why a man who was just standing on the road to see what the commotion was all about got hit by a police baton in the head. That explains why someone who lives nearby ended up getting arrested. 

That could also explain why police arrested Joshua Wong of Scholarism and Lester Shum of Hong Kong Federation of Students on Wednesday morning, even if the arresting officers could not give a reason why they were hauling away the two student leaders.

As an on-site camera recording showed, the manner of their arrest was violent and haphazard. They were both hit in the head, and Wong lost his eyeglasses and shoes in the process. Officers also frisked Wong six or seven times, prompting the young activist to wonder if it was part of the policeman’s duty to check his scrotum.

On Thursday night, police arrested an Apple Daily photographer in Mong Kok, accusing him of assaulting officers with his camera. However, video footages showed that it was the police officers who surrounded him and hit him in the head with a baton. The same thing happened with a NowTV engineer who was arrested for allegedly attacking the police with a camera ladder. Both were released hours later.

In the absence of adequate training on the rules of engagement, the policy appears to be to arrest first and ask questions later.

It used to be that police officers knew right away the journalists covering mass actions and how to distinguish them from the protesters. But since the police force started getting bad press for the way they deal with the Occupy activists, they no longer seem to bother to make that distinction.

It’s as clear as day that police officers assigned to deal with the Occupy campaign are not adequately prepared to handle the task.

In early October, police were accused of tapping triad members to clear the Mong Kok protest site. No wonder, some observers say, they are starting to behave like gangsters.

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A police officer shouts at the crowd, asking them to shut up. Anyone who talks back or steps closer will be arrested, he says. Photo: EJ Insight

A man, who accidentally used a flash while taking a picture of the commotion, is arrested and brought to a dark corner. Police officers also stopped media from getting closer. Photo: EJ Insight

Most of those arrested suffered injuries in the head, face and ear as they were pinned to the ground. Photo: AFP

Some police officers become a bit emotional, brandishing their batons and shouting at protesters and media people. Photo: AFP

A police officer tries to disperse the crowd with a baton. Photo: AFP

EJ Insight writer