Police will wear body-cameras
Jennifer Ngo and John Carney
Frontline police officers in Hong Kong will be fitted with body-cameras after recent complaints about their handling of demonstrators.
As part of a three-month trial, an undisclosed number of officers in the specialist police tactical unit and key Kowloon West emergency units will be fitted with the mini-cameras as early as this week.
The controversial move has sparked privacy fears but the force hopes it will cut crime, raise conviction rates and tackle a growing 'complaint culture'' in the city.
It is also hoped the cameras will work both ways, deterring potential offenders while keeping officers in line as they interact with the public in heated situations.
The RS3-SX devices are about the size of a cigarette packet and are clipped to police uniforms.
They are made by the British company Reveal Media and sell for HK$6,800 each.
If the trial period is a success, it is understood police chiefs want to buy 7,000 cameras, roughly enough for every officer in a three-shift day. Similar cameras are already being used by police in the UK and US.
Police in Western Australia and Queensland decided to not use them after trial runs because of privacy concerns.
Andrew Shum Wai-nam, of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella organisation for more than 40 non-governmental groups in Hong Kong, said: 'It is worrisome. The police force's job is undeniably to keep the city safe and to stamp out crime, but it is not acceptable to do it at the expense of destroying people's privacy.'
He is concerned that video footage would be used to identify protesters and that the mere presence of the cameras could create a climate of fear. An insider with knowledge of the plan said the cameras would be turned on only during major incidents and in situations when it was 'deemed necessary''.
They would be turned off during routine police work. Footage would not be kept for more than 30 days, unless required as evidence in court.
One veteran officer welcomed the new initiative, saying it would boost evidence-gathering capabilities.
It would also act as a deterrent because with the camera turned on, people would think twice about escalating a potentially confrontational situation.
'I think it would help calm things down. It's also good for the public as it would mean police won't overreact if it's all going to be recorded on video. They'd have to be sure to follow the appropriate protocol, so it works both ways.' The cameras have sound, video and camera functions and officers will wear them clipped on their lapels.
They have a front-facing screen, a memory of up to 32GB, weigh 140 grams and have a maximum battery life of more than eight hours.
The Grampian police force in Scotland reported that more than 90 per cent of prosecutions using footage taken by video cameras worn by officers led to early guilty pleas and a higher conviction rate.
However, officers had to be fully trained on how to use the device and follow strict guidance.
Any recording not required for evidence or other policing purposes was destroyed.
Legislator James To Kun-sun expressed worries.
He said: 'The incidents which would benefit from video footage are few and far between, and not enough to justify having surveillance like this.
'[To adopt this] is a big change in policy. Even the police admitted that 99 per cent of protests in Hong Kong are completely peaceful, so how often would we need to 'monitor' situations? Most of the time, it's unnecessary ... If the police wanted, they could just carry a normal video cameras on protests.'
To said that while it's not illegal to take videos and photos in public spaces, using the taxpayers' money for 'something unnecessary' is a waste.
A police spokeswoman said the force had always used hand-held devices to record cases relating to public order and 'for investigation and evidentiary purposes'.
She said advances in technology meant that many police forces overseas had adopted body-cameras with good results.
She confirmed that the Hong Kong force was 'investigating the possibility of adopting such body-cameras'.
She added that all officers would be fully trained and adhere to strict rules when using them in public.