We must address the police question with urgency and reason

November 06, 2019 08:00
It would be absurd to insist that all policemen are immoral agents, but we must reflect upon and address properly the structural inadequacies that propel them to carry out unconscionable actions, says the author. Photo: Bloomberg

Weekend after weekend, Hong Kong descends into predictable violence. Shops are targeted, people of different political opinions abused and attacked by belligerents from both sides, with the police-civilian relations sinking to ever-lower depths. It angers me to see youths turning to vandalism, destruction, and other forms of violence to achieve what they view as a legitimate cause.

Yet it also deeply pains me to witness episodes of inexplicable, unjustifiable deployment of force by the police against innocent civilians – both those who are peacefully protesting (not vandalizing shops, destroying property or attacking others) or those who are completely uninvolved.

Let me make two points very clear.

One, the police are more than justified in deploying force against those who threaten their security and safety, and also in restraining those who break the law and jeopardize public safety. This, however, depends on certain conditions – e.g., there exists no alternative and the deployment of force is effective.

Two, untargeted, disproportionate violence is rarely permissible as a tool of activism. Its collateral damage – to the rule of law and civic order – is far too high to justify its usage, under ordinary circumstances.

Despite these two caveats, I hope it is uncontroversial to say that against individuals who are neither violent nor involved in destructive behavior, there is no principled ground – by protocol or morality – to employ excessive force against them. If we want to speak of international standards, movements calling for greater attention and structural reforms over police brutality in the United States – particularly in relation to its disproportionate use against African-Americans or other minorities – have taken the country by storm. The British and French police forces have come under criticism for their handling of, respectively, the Extinction Rebellion and the Gilets Jaunts Movement. The international “norm” is clearly undesirable – and that’s why the persistent abuses and failings are being called out and challenged by those who will not submit to the cheap and blithe excuses such as “circumstances call for it” or “it’s unavoidable to use force”.

From the inexplicable firing of tear gas towards bystanders or peaceful onlookers, to the impetuous and vindictive haranguing of those who simply voice dissent towards the police, to firing colored water at the Kowloon Mosque – there are simply too many instances of unacceptable police actions over the past four or five months. The use of force by the police against violent lawbreakers is only persuasively justifiable and legitimate if they do not also indiscriminately deploy weapons of significant destruction – teargas rounds and live bullets – against those who are not violent lawbreakers: journalists, first-aid providers and emergency medical technicians, housewives, youngsters, and children.

Regardless of your political orientation, you should be concerned about this, not just for the humanitarian reasons outlined above – but also because of the long-term implications of the disproportionate or improper deployment of force by the police. A polity with minimal civilian-police trust is one where crimes are likely to proliferate, where vigilantism – as we already have seen – becomes the dominant mode of settling disputes outside the law, and where the legitimacy of the governing authorities becomes irrevocably damaged. It is no coincidence that one of the primary demands – if not the predominant demand – of the movement has now become a call for accountability and justice over police actions. If sustainable and publicly acceptable solutions could be found with regard to police violence, I am confident that up to 75 percent of the movement would dissolve and “sever ties” with those who continue to deploy violence. In contrast, persistent deployment of excessive force only fuels the protests and lends angry individuals on all sides a convenient excuse to continue to rip our city apart.

All of this is not to say that we should be demonizing and vilifying each and every frontline policeman. There is an easy temptation, in times of crises, to attribute responsibility to individuals whose agency we amplify and exaggerate – for the sake of scoring easy political points. It is so much easier to paint the individual officer as the villain, than to recognize that there are structural problems at play here – systemic issues that transform many in the police force into unwilling villains, civilians into victims.

The current Hong Kong administration has sought to resolve a political and accountability-centered crisis through inefficacious and excessive reliance on the police force. The root of the crisis lies with how the government tried to advance the extradition bill (hint: very poorly), and the controversy has since spiraled into an unnecessary and counterproductive pitting of Hongkongers against the Beijing administration.

Yet instead of responding directly to some of the demands of the public, the administration took to compelling junior police officers to work overtime, under abhorrent conditions and immense pressure, in seeking to suppress the movement. Not only is such an approach wholly ineffective – in that a political movement of dissent and opposition won’t simply die down through brute force alone – it has also created a plethora of confrontations between police and civilians, evolving gradually yet apparently into a blood feud sustained by emotionally charged vengeance.

Even if you are someone convinced that foreign funding and backing are at play here, presumably the answer is never to beat up the frontline protesters and cause extensive collateral damage to shops and businesses across the city, but to target those who are ostensibly funding the movement behind the scenes.

The administration’s “police-first, politics-never” approach must be blamed for our being dragged into this quagmire today.

Furthermore, the police are ill-equipped for handling mass movements and rallies. Prior to June 2019, public support for the police was at an unprecedented high – Hongkongers generally viewed the police as a disciplined and uptight force, devoted to servicing the public and maintaining order. Such trust in the police is part of what makes Hong Kong such a safe and open city for individuals – safe enough to walk alone at night, safe enough to not fear pickpocketing and robberies in even the densest regions of the city. Yet suffice it to say that our forces have not been trained to handle politically and emotionally charged dissident movements, or mass rallies in which a radical minority turns to violence. More importantly, there has been limited training to ensure that frontline officers could handle the emotions involved when they become the targets of immense public backlash. The police are ill-equipped to be the battering ram between the government and the public.

Having spoken to many on the front line who are neither evil nor politically predisposed, I have come to realize that they feel deeply alienated and fearful about the ongoing protests. Many feel helpless about being sent to maintain order when what confronts them and their colleagues are potentially lethal attacks. Many also fear that they are mere pawns in a chess game, with no ability to shape how the pieces come together. They fear that their families will be targeted by vindictive vigilantes, but also fear that their next patrol will be their last. It is not difficult to understand why given such mass paranoia, expecting frontline officers on their own to soundly and duly adhere to protocol is a deeply Sisyphean task.

Yet this is by no means an excuse for inaction or apathy. This is not a reason for us to do nothing. We must address the question of police conduct with a sense of urgency, a compassionate outlook, and pragmatic reasonableness. We must do away with inflammatory rhetoric or hatred, or presumptions that blind us to the inadequacies and flaws on all sides. We must act with the intention of solving – not exacerbating – the crisis.

First, it is imperative that police conduct and actions are investigated through a robust and comprehensive Committee of Inquiry, led by an independently appointed panel of judges. If pro-establishment forces suspect foul play or foreign money is at work, let’s investigate that. If many moderates are indignant about the administration’s shortcomings, let’s investigate that too. Yet we must have a thorough investigation that takes seriously an issue that draws concern from 80 percent of the public (according to a mass poll by Center for Communication and Public Opinion Survey of the Chinese University of Hong Kong).

This investigation does not necessarily have to emphasize portioning blame on an individual level, but could instead focus on identifying structural loopholes and failures that led to today’s impasse. Even a pro-establishment legislator as staunch and ideologically rigid as Priscilla Leung Mei-fun has repeatedly called on the government to set up a Riots, Victims and Communities Panel that will address both concerns of police conduct and the causes of the ongoing protests. Those in power cannot afford to ignore the people’s voices – any longer.

Second, we must recognize that the frontline officers are not the problem – some of them may be symptoms of deeper problems, whereas many of them are merely trying to do their jobs under increasingly difficult circumstances. It would be absurd to insist that all policemen are immoral agents, but we must reflect upon and address properly the structural inadequacies that propel them to carry out unconscionable actions. It is high time that politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats in the administration stepped up to address the core issues at hand today – as opposed to continually exploiting the tenacity of the disciplinary forces as a shield from accountability and genuine solutions. At the same time, we must condemn ludicrous vigilante attacks on the lives of off-duty policemen.

Third, there are many imminent and visceral questions over police conduct over the past few months that merit open addressing – as opposed to opaque equivocation. Questions over the events of July 21, Aug. 31, Oct. 1 must be addressed, and the police should – as they have insisted previously – show the public both sides of the story. Transparent and frank communication would go a long way in assuaging the worries and fears of many moderates, in ways that obstinate denialism simply cannot.

I’ll close with a prediction. After reading the above article, my readers are bound to feel deeply divided. One-third of you will view this article as unjustifiable slander towards the city’s prestigious police force. Another third will deem it as a mere covering-up and tacit justification of some of the worst excesses of the no-longer-disciplined disciplinary forces. The final third will be skeptical, but largely feel that there is little they can do.

It is precisely this sort of dangerous polarization that is driving our city apart – the blatant unwillingness to see one’s shortcomings, or the merits in “the other side”; the conflation between the pursuit of the truth and the pursuit of what best adheres to one’s existing biases and comfort zone. It is also this sort of all-or-nothing (“you either support the police 100 percent or you must support its dissolution”) rhetoric that renders any potential solutions unlikely to come to political fruition.

So what can the 33 percent in the middle do? I suggest listening, embracing, and channeling – listening to the concerns and voices of both extremes, embracing that some among them could well be valid, and channeling those complaints and grievances into constructive proposals. I cannot say that I have come up with a panacea, but would suggest that if we shift our collective attention from emotive inflammation to lobbying for genuine accountability, we may find our tomorrow a little less bleak, our city a little less desperate, and peace and order a tad less far-fetched than they currently are.

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HKEJ contributor