HK police's reputation as a respected force takes a beating

HONG KONG - In the 1985 Hong Kong action thriller Police Story, Jackie Chan's policeman character Chan Ka Kui hangs off a bus, slides five storeys down a pole surrounded by light bulbs and drives a car through a shanty town, all in the name of fighting baddies.

While real-life police action here is not quite as action-packed, such crime-fighting classics have immortalised the heroic policeman in local folklore.

In the past month, however, the city's 28,000-strong police force has been fighting a different kind of battle. Its hard-earned reputation as an efficient, respected force has been battered as it struggled to handle the biggest and most protracted public protests the city has seen in decades.

"Hong Kongers generally trust the police. But after Sept 28, that changed," said Hong Kong Institute of Education's Dr Lawrence Ho, who specialises in police studies. On that day, police fired 87 tear gas canisters at pro-democracy protesters, shocking a city used to peaceful demonstrations and triggering mass street rallies.

On Wednesday, the police came under fire again, when a video showed seven officers beating up a handcuffed activist as he lay on the ground. The seven were suspended after protesters rallied outside the Wan Chai police headquarters chanting "black cops!", associating them with the triads.

The incidents are a serious blow to a force dubbed "Asia's finest" following a remarkable transformation from an organisation notorious for graft in the 1960s.

The game-changer took place in 1974, when the British colonial government set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which reduced corruption and increased public trust. Effective community policing has also been credited for bringing constables closer to the people.

Hong Kong's crime rates today are among the lowest in the world, with eight robberies per 100,000 people in 2012, compared with 243 in New York and 789 for Paris, according to government figures.

While the older generation appreciate the lower crime rates, younger Hong Kongers are less impressed, Dr Ho noted. Instead, they have come to associate the police force with the Hong Kong government and Beijing, and see its officers as doing the latter's bidding. The police force's approval ratings, taken once every six months, have fallen from over 80 per cent in 2007 to under 60 per cent in the first half of this year.

"The police have had to deal with increased instances of public protests in recent years, as the economies of China and Hong Kong become more integrated, leading to greater inflation, cultural conflict and mistrust of authorities," Dr Ho said. "They don't see the police as being on their side."

Protesters have accused the police of repeatedly turning a blind eye despite provocation by anti- Occupy groups and hired thugs, a charge the police have denied.

But political analyst Joseph Cheng says many Hong Kongers are also sympathetic, particularly towards front-line police and the long hours they have to put in during this period. When the police cleared the Mong Kok protest site yesterday, appreciative members of the public applauded them.

The challenge for Hong Kong's police is they are public servants caught in a political situation, commentator Alex Lo noted in the South China Morning Post yesterday. "Officers are not trained to worry about politics," he wrote. "This crisis needs a political settlement, not a police clearance."

This article was first published on October 18, 2014.
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