We need an honest conversation about police accountability

September 11, 2020 08:48
Photo: Reuters

I don’t think the police force is evil.

I don’t think that a majority of them are deliberately bent on inflicting pain or suffering upon Hong Kong’s citizens.

I don’t think front-line policemen are trained to treat civilians as their mortal enemies, and to take masochistic pride in the demise or pain of teenagers and children.

I think the police force is amongst the victims of the past year of civil unrest, political acrimony, and a brewing perfect storm that culminated after repeated blunders by all parties involved.

And above all – I think the Us-vs-Them rhetoric that divides (but also, ironically, unites) those sympathetic towards the democracy movement, and those who vehemently oppose them as they see them as harbingers of instability and violent rioting, is neither conducive towards a healed and better Hong Kong, nor, specifically, helpful in de-escalating police-civilian tensions and mistrust.

It is with these thoughts in mind – yes, what folks from both sides enjoy painting (or smearing) as fence-sitting centrism, or, as I call it, attempting to bring verisimilitude to the ideology-fused conversation – that I think we need an honest conversation about police accountability. By this, I don’t mean the platitudes that have been offered thus far: your unrealistic “Disband the Police!” or “Sack them all!”, or the bizarre false equivalences, “If you’re criticising the police, you must support the rioters!” and “If you believe that there is police brutality, you must be a brainwashed yellow ribbon!”

Let’s face it. There’s more to life (at least this specific matter) than the obsequious, disingenuous essentialisation that breaks things down to black and white. It pains me to see many highly educated, well-informed individuals, opting to infer their judgments about the world from the news sources that they regularly consume from within their comfort zones. If you’re a Fox News watcher, you’re unlikely to be convinced that the Birther conspiracy is a conspiracy; if you’re a HuffPo reader, you may find yourself convinced that the Democrats are the only legitimate political force in the USA (to be fair, that’s a judgment I’m not loath to make).

Let’s take a look at the police-civilian altercations that have taken our city by storm since last June. We cannot run away from the fact that there are episodes where the police have exercised their force in highly dubious manner. From the chasing-down of civilians in New Town Plaza in Shatin last year, to the recent injury of the 12-year-old girl just this past weekend, there have been plenty of episodes where even the more pro-Establishment (not that partisan ideology should, in an ideal world, have an impact on judgments of truth) watchers of news would inevitably come to the conclusion, “Something’s amiss here.”

Restraining law-breaking citizens is absolutely in the remit of the police force – that’s what they’re paid to do, and for all the flaws and faults we find in the law, we should not transform the police force into a punching bag into which we vent our legalistic or moralistic frustrations. Yet restraining citizens with egregious levels of force, causing inexplicable injuries, only to be accompanied by the most blasé, flippant apologies – that’s not what Hong Kong’s world-class police force ought to do; that’s what we’d expect from a third-rate authoritarian country, or a democracy in shambles, and by that, I definitely count the United States in 2020 amongst the latter. We can do better than states that we ought to look to as a vigilant reminder of how bad things go – Louisville, Minneapolis, Atlanta, need I say more?

Pro-Establishment hawks love citing the United States as a “Gotcha!” example that allegedly exposes the hypocrisy of “Yellow Ribbons”… and vindicates police brutality. This is a bizarre line of argument – either there is something amiss in the United States, where the police, exercising brutal levels of force, clearly violates baselines and protocol that Blue or Yellow ribbons alike ought to uphold; or there is nothing awry going on across the Pacific. If it’s the latter, then there surely is no hypocrisy coming from the “Yellow Ribbons”. Yet if it’s the former, presumably pro-Establishment pundits ought to also speak out over the clear abuses of office and powers by individual police officers.

Here the hawks would say, “We can’t judge! We can’t judge!”

Yet if we genuinely can’t judge, then surely all the more is the case for an independent commission – one that investigates thoroughly the circumstances, contexts, intentions, and degrees of force of all the parties involved; one that clears the names of those who have not erred and done no wrongs, yet judiciously punishes those who have – in Chinese, we call that holding accountable the “horse that gives a bad name to the herd”.

Yet if we genuinely can’t judge, then how come commentators – ill-equipped in legal expertise and with little to no exposure to how courtrooms work – could so adamantly insist that the “Yellow Judges” are betraying Hong Kong by letting off the hook “Yellow Protesters”? How could ostensibly impartial observers, who are impartial insofar as they do not want to comment on police abuses and brutality, suddenly leap to the defense of one party so self-righteously and insistently, without recognising that they, too, could be fallible?

Yet if we genuinely can’t judge, then how, then how on earth, can we move on as a collective, and ensure that police-civilian relations can be returned to normal, that our Hong Kong could be rebuilt – not on the sweat and tears and blood of Hongkongers, of the uncle who was killed by a radical, violent protester throwing bricks at him, or the victim of arson in Ma On Shan, or the youth who have suffered egregious injuries at the hands of clearly avoidable confrontations, or the ordinary pedestrian who didn’t pay or sign up for teargas or Molotov cocktails?

I strongly condemn the violence of the violent protesters (not the peaceful ones), and would argue – loud and proud - that nothing good has or could come out of the persistent, zealous devotion towards usage of force on the ground. Yet it is high time for those who agree with me, that violence is not the answer, that force without restraint is not a justified tool, to stand consistently for upholding the values that we hold dear – peace and non-violence, law-abiding and protocol-adherence, these are principles that we should and must expect our forces to uphold.

I know that many in the forces are not bad people. I also know that in the split-second of the violent confrontation, much could go awry. This is why superiors must invest resources in equipping front-line officers with the necessary training and counselling, to ensure that they do not become the battering ram of the administration. This is why we need independent and thorough investigation, especially now that there is a danger of the violent, illegal protests cropping up again on our streets. And this is why we need to have a genuine conversation about police accountability – on top of enforcing the law, as we must and should, against vandals, rioters, and instigators who want to destroy our city.

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HKEJ contributor