Police can bolster fight against family violence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2007, 12:00am

In the age of the global knowledge-based economy, the family unit remains a foundation stone of society. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen singled out the family in an interview published in this newspaper yesterday about his goals and vision for a second term in office. He hopes to 'anchor or deepen the process of family building' to help achieve the progress needed to make Hong Kong a 'world city in China'.

He will not get any argument with that. But within hours of publication of his remarks, his vision for the city was clouded by Hong Kong's latest crime figures. The trend that claimed most attention was a disturbing rise in family violence.

Criminal domestic violence cases rose by 42.2 per cent, while other cases such as disputes, calls for police assistance and breaches of the peace rose 113.7 per cent - an overall rise of 79 per cent. That does not include violent incidents involving the elderly and children.

This is a message to the government that if it does not practise what it preaches about the role of the family, the pressures of life in a crowded, fast-paced city focused on business and making money can damage the foundation stone.

The figures do need to be read in context. Families so conflicted that they become a police statistic are still a small, unrepresentative minority. But domestic violence has come out of the closet since the Tin Shui Wai tragedy of 2004, when a frightened woman who had unsuccessfully sought police help was murdered by her husband, along with her children.

Victims are now more willing to go to the police and less likely to be inhibited by feelings of helplessness and shame. Police are more willing to act and less likely to prevail upon victims to think of their families before pursuing a complaint that could put the male breadwinner in jail.

Nonetheless, the latest crime figures reveal the growing toll among families of pressures such as unemployment and financial stress, high-rise isolation, lack of community services and support networks, especially in new towns, and psychological factors such as clinical depression.

The chief executive was quick to respond to public outrage over the Tin Shui Wai tragedy by promising more resources for social services and education and a pilot scheme to counsel violent men.

Late last year, police finally got around to implementing new procedures in response to the findings of two inquiries into the tragedy. All domestic incidents are now fed into a central database so front-line officers can access their history. Officers have training in how to handle domestic abuse cases and a checklist to help define the serious ones. These are overdue basic measures if police are to respond properly to domestic incidents.

The introduction of specially trained family violence teams to maintain follow-up contact with seriously conflicted families, especially in the troubled northwestern New Territories, breaks new ground.

Family violence poses a particular problem for our police. Enforcing the letter of the law tests the sensitive boundaries of privacy, culture and tradition. As a result, police in the past tended not to treat violence in the home as a crime.

Recently retired police commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai deserves credit for working to turn police attitudes around and implementing initiatives. The new commissioner, Tang King-shing, should consider the views of family welfare groups that there is room for police to further strengthen co-operation with social workers. Against Child Abuse says that in enforcing the law, police often overlook their role of protector, particularly of children. They should step up teamwork with social workers and psychiatrists to offer more help to victims.

The cost of coming to grips with family violence through beefing up social welfare counselling and policing and providing better community support facilities and services would be considerable. But a government conscious of budgetary discipline should remember that it would be an investment in Hong Kong's future, not a handout.