Since Sept. 28, when the Umbrella movement began, police repeatedly used pepper spray, tear gas and batons against protesters and our fellow citizens.
Many protesters reportedly suffered from head injuries and bone fractures, and one medical volunteer was even diagnosed with retinal detachment after being hit in the head with police batons.
Even though police reiterated they had exercised restraint whenever possible and that they had used only minimum force against protesters, neither the government nor the police can ignore the grave public concern over whether front-line officers used excessive force when dealing with protesters.
In fact, the overall public image of the police has plunged to almost crisis levels as a result of the way police dealt with protesters over the past few months.
An opinion survey released in December by the University of Hong Kong found that the public approval rating of the police had dropped to a mere 29.1 percent, the lowest since the handover in 1997.
Over the past two months, The Professional Commons, to which I belong, has worked closely together with Hong Kong In-media to set up a database of police violence in the Umbrella movement.
My colleagues have been collecting, through the internet and with the help of community organizations, data about injuries suffered by individuals during police crackdowns.
This data includes how, when and where they were injured and the severity of their injuries.
The setting up of this database is, firstly, aimed at building a detailed and genuine historical record of the sacrifices our fellow citizens and protesters made, so that they won’t be forgotten.
It is also aimed at providing data for a review of the local human rights situation and the rules of engagement adopted by frontline police officers.
To build a successful database not only takes a sufficient number of individual cases and detailed information but also requires the painstaking effort of a team of professional social workers and psychiatrists to personally examine the case of every victim and the testimony of every eyewitness so as to ensure their authenticity and accuracy.
In the meantime, the database can also be helpful when referring victims to professional services such as psychological counseling and legal support, to ensure that their cases will be followed up.
The database will also provide information to non-governmental organizations on individual cases with victims’ consent.
Human rights groups may draw on it to put together reports about police brutality, which might be used as legal evidence for victims to file human rights charges locally or internationally.
These reports can also provide a basis on which we can seek to reform the existing mechanism for handling public complaints against the police, to make sure police brutality will never happen again.
As a social institution that exercises its power under public mandate, our government must bear in mind every recorded civilian injury during the movement, so as to learn lessons from it and come up with solid ideas to repair the relationship between the police and the public.
It should be the government’s top priority to standardize the procedures and guidelines that govern police power and introduce oversight and transparency, so as to make sure our law enforcement officers will, in future, act strictly according to the law.
Moreover, the police force must also explore ways to improve its system for handling complaints against its front-line officers and increase its efficiency in processing such cases.
In 2000, the Hong Kong Bar Association submitted to the Legislative Council a letter of opinion on the freedom of assembly and the right to protest, in which it pointed out that a lot of mass assemblies or protests are aimed at opposing government decisions or policies.
The letter said that as Hong Kong’s primary law enforcement body, the police force and its front-line commanders can often exercise discretion in the line of duty.
However, it said, unnecessary public speculation may arise about the impartiality of the police if there are no clear guidelines to govern the ways in which such discretionary power can be used.
It might even give the impression that some police decisions may have been influenced by politics or could have been made in favour of the government or certain political groups.
If such an impression has taken root among the public, the letter said, it could lead to controversies that might split our society.
Ironically, this opinion given by the Bar Association 14 years ago still applies to Hong Kong today and continues to strike a chord in the hearts of many of our fellow citizens.
Recently in the United States, the relations between police and ethnic minorities have been strained almost to the breaking point after a series of incidents involving black victims.
The last thing I want to see is that Hong Kong goes along the same path and, as a result, hatred becomes the only thing left in police-community relations.
Perhaps the only way to avoid that scenario is to resolve our political differences by political means, and our police force must undergo depoliticization so as to rebuild trust with the community.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 31.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Police Violence Database in Umbrella Movement]
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