A pass or fail for each of the major situations the Hong Kong police had to respond to in the last ten days. And a new suggestion to rebuild trust.
The Hong Kong Police Department has come under fire for a number of tactics used throughout the recent protests. A breakdown of the three most prominent actions, with old school grading, shows that it was not Hong Kong Police Force’s best PR week.
Crowd Management & Tear Gas in Central/Admiralty L&O grade: C-
Mistakes were made – many unnecessary. The police had ample time to plan and strategise for the Occupy Central protests – in fact a full 18 months. The police and Hong Kong Government could and should have let the protesters enter Tamar Park on late Sunday afternoon, rather than force new arrivals to collect outside the police perimeter and along Harcourt Road, leading to the overflow and accidental launch of the road blockage. Keeping protesters inside Tamar Park would have, in retrospect, caused the least amount of disruption to everyday commuters. Instead, the situation was escalated by both sides. Yes, pressing forward towards a line of police will warrant a response and understandably so. Just ask any Toronto G-20 protesters (June 2010) what the police response was there. Hint: It was not pretty.
In addition to several tear gas deployment errors that could have caused severe injury or death, crowd control errors were also rife. One particular case on Connaught Road (near the Hutchison Building) saw the police deploy tear gas and move forward, only to be boxed in by the very people they tried to disperse. The police then had to deploy even more tear gas to undo the mistake they had just made. In the process, they pushed thousands of protesters towards the PLA building, resulting in some tense moments.
But let’s keep some things in perspective. Compared to much of the rest of the world, the amount of force the police used was very light. The G-20 protests in Toronto (2010), Bahraini protests (2011-present) and Occupy Gezi in Turkey (2013) all saw a far heavier response by authorities. Yes, the protesters were far more aggressive than what we saw in the streets of Hong Kong, but even with this in mind, the amount of proportional force used was several times more in those incidents.
In the end, the decision to use tear gas was an utter failure. The use of force did not achieve its intended goal of clearing the protesters from Tamar. Instead, it incited the opposite by galvanizing everyday citizens who were shocked to see the police use force against peaceful, unarmed students, and who rushed on site to protect and defend their fellow citizens.
Using an Ambulance to Smuggle Supplies L&O grade: F-
The decision to smuggle tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot into the Chief Executives’ Office was one move I bet the police wish they could take back. Talk about ‘Bad PR 101’. The force was well on its way to gaining back the trust of the public when they decided to pull the stunt in full view of the public.
To the police’s defence, the resupply did come after students threatened to storm the CE’s office later in the night. Restocking anti-riot supplies is fully understandable and in itself should not be a shock but the manner in which they went about doing it was troubling and leads me to believe it was to demonstrate a ‘show of force’ to the students.
Whoever was in charge should have had the common sense to realise the situation was de-escalating and any provocation would undo all gains made in the previous days.
Mong Kok Clashes L&O grade: B+
One of the more disturbing events that took place during the course of the protests were the violent confrontations in Mong Kok. Scenes of anti-Occupy activists attacking the Occupy camp with not only physical violence but sexual harassment were both shocking and disgusting.
The police response was at first disorganized and slow but those on the scene did provide an escort to any protesters who wished to leave the scene. It was not perfect but there was some level of protection given. Matters were likely made worse with the low level of trust between the police and Occupy HK protesters – who met the offer of help with a heavy dose of skepticism.
The triad question
Were the police cooperating with the triads? No – at least not any more than usual to keep the peace in triad heavy neighbourhoods. People suggesting that the Hong Kong government were in collusion with, or paying the triads are simply reaching for straws – just think of all the paper work! The most likely cause of the anti-Occupy protests was the fact the Occupy protesters were negatively affecting local business, the same businesses that pay protection money to the triads. No business means no money for the triads. Put two and two together.
The major questions surrounding police actions in Mong Kok were the slow-moving reinforcements, the release of violent anti-occupy protesters blocks away and the lack of arrest of people who were clearly committing violent and sex crimes in full view of police officers. Was it done to get revenge on the students (probably not) or to prevent further escalation (probably)? All of these decisions did nothing but create a larger crowd management problem by allowing agitators and violent individuals to immediately return to the scene.
Can’t Hate Them Forever
Credit needs to be paid to those who protect us every day. The Hong Kong police are the best in Asia and perhaps the world. The police did eventually protect the Occupy protestors in Mong Kok from further harm and after the initial tear gassing they did something no other police force in history has done – they pulled back.
Lastly, a harmonious and trusting relationship between citizens and police is paramount to any peaceful society (for the opposite, think ‘Ferguson, Missouri’). The loss of that trust in Hong Kong is disturbing and sad. An independent reconciliatory board should be established to build back the trust that was lost. No, not the Hong Kong version of the Nuremberg Trials, but a means to mend broken ties between police and Hong Kong’s citizens. The last thing any city needs is a generation of youth distrusting the police force.
Evan Wilcox is a graduate of Brock University and The Royal Military College of Canada with a masters in Security and Defense Management and Policy. He currently works for a Hong Kong-based company specializing in corporate risk mitigation, investigations and IT security.