A question of morale

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 1999, 12:00am

WHEN any group starts to complain about reductions in overtime, an initial reaction is that it may be putting its own financial interests ahead of efficient management. But the complaints by frontline police officers, which we report on Page 1 today, raise a worrying question for the maintenance of law and order.

Measures to reduce the overtime these policemen can claim, as well as cuts in the pay they receive from additional hours, are leading to them stopping work on the dot. The exact impact of that on law enforcement and arrest rates is, by its nature, hard to quantify. But one cannot ignore concrete examples like the case in which a senior officer told our reporter that he was instructed to telephone a prime suspect and ask the man to remain at home so he could be arrested the next morning in order to avoid any overtime work being incurred.

This is happening as the overall crime rate for the first seven months of the year increased by nine per cent over the same period of 1998 while the detection rate fell by 10.6 per cent.

Hong Kong has a well-earned reputation as a generally law-abiding society. The efficiency of the police is something we have come to take for granted. Concern in some quarters that this would decline after the handover have proved unfounded. The combination of an effective police force, the Independent Commission Against Corruption and a strong, independent judicial system safeguarding the rule of law are among the advantages which contribute to the general reputation of the SAR and thus to its ability to compete in attracting business.

While it is obviously in everybody's interests for the police force to be managed as professionally as possible, this must not be at the expense of operational efficiency. Some of the complaints by officers could be seen as simply reflecting hostility towards supervision. For instance, it is hard to object to random monthly checks on overtime claims or action if errors are found.

The question is, rather, how such procedures are being applied. If they are carried out in such a manner as to improve overall efficiency, that can be for the good. But if they are conducted in a heavy-handed way that saps morale and seems to bring the honesty of officers into question, society as a whole will be the loser.