Stakeouts stepped up to snare phantom high-rise throwers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am

Retired police join scare campaign to deter residents dropping dangerous objects

The recent increase in people throwing objects out of high-rise buildings - from scissors to mattresses - has forced the government to step up stakeouts in public housing estates.

As part of a scare campaign, the Housing Department last week added three men to a taskforce - made up of retired policemen - to catch people throwing objects from windows in its 160 public housing estates, after promising to install more motion-detection cameras.

The Sunday Morning Post joined the strengthened team as it staked out one of Hong Kong's most notorious black spots. They found that residents of Lok Wah South Estate in Sau Mau Ping have been living in fear for years, the target of a mystery thrower high in one block.

'All the kids know to move to a different playground at 6pm. The hand from Man Wah House throws plastic containers and glass bottles out the window at us every night,' 12-year-old Mary Wong Mei-ling said.

'I was hit in the head with a packet of flour when I was six. Since then my mum has told me to walk under the podium edge or put up an umbrella if I have to walk in the open. But I know the objects could pierce the umbrella anyway.'

But the problem has worsened recently, with a mattress, a lighter-fluid can and glass bottles thrown out of other buildings on the estate, prompting fears the mystery thrower is on the move or encouraging copycats. Many residents are too scared to tell police and security guards.

Mary said the memory of the time when burning newspaper thrown from above almost caused a fire in her flat was still fresh in her mind.

'We are all scared but we don't want to lodge a complaint. If the person found out, they might start throwing more dangerous things, like knives or scissors,' she said.

Other residents, like Ho Yuk-hei, 82, who was nearly hit in the head with a spanner last summer, said people would never be able to walk in the open because the 'bad person' was impossible to catch. But as Ms Ho spoke, the nine-member taskforce was trying to bring the reign of terror to an end.

The team, armed with binoculars and video cameras, had the building under close observation from behind some bushes.

Chief security officer Timothy Wu Man-tim said his team had been using 'guerilla warfare' for a week to try to track down the Man Wah House culprit.

'The problem here is very serious,' he said. 'It is the first time I have seen so many metal signs warning people against falling objects. If we know which flat it is, we can get the guy. But if we only know the building, there is just a 50 to 80 per cent chance.'

Mr Wu, who was in the police force 27 years, said most people who threw objects were women with no sense of civic responsibility, but serial offenders were more sinister. 'It is like a drug addiction,' he said.

'They can't stop and it keeps escalating. They want to challenge authority and they enjoy the attention they get. If you don't catch them they will never stop.'

Fellow retired officer Mr Lai said his job was a waiting game most young people would not have the patience to do. The lack of legal power - they collect evidence, identify suspects and testify in court - to make arrests was also frustrating.

'They hire experienced officers because we have patience and discipline. Sometimes we wait for up to 10 days,' he said.

'If I were younger, I could not do this job. When we find a suspect we have to inform the Housing Department and then the police. We don't even have the authority to go into the building.'

Despite a week waiting in the sweltering heat, with no time for lunch, the men failed to locate the suspect. They vowed to return at a later date.

Meanwhile, the missiles did not stop raining down.

At about 8.30am, a stool was thrown from Chui Yuen House in Chuk Yuen South Estate, Wong Tai Sin. A suspect could not be identified despite a police search.

Three hours earlier, a 45-year-old resident of Shekkipmei Estate was arrested for throwing two 30cm-long extinguishers and a 50cm-long rubbish bin out of a public corridor after arguing with his girlfriend.

According to police, cases of objects falling from a height have increased by 18 per cent since last year. A total of 556 cases were recorded in the first six months of this year. Only 23 per cent of cases have been solved.