Testing officers' state of mind could save lives

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am

The inquest into the violent deaths of three policemen and a security guard in three separate incidents was the highest-profile coroner's inquiry Hong Kong has seen. Evidence linking one of the dead policemen to all three crime scenes ensured it held the public's attention.

The hearing raised important matters of public interest and exposed the culture of the police force to public scrutiny in a way not seen since the corruption scandals decades ago. The police chief has admitted the force's image has suffered a blow. The community was entitled to expect transparency and to seek closure on the horrific crimes. Above all, justice had to be seen to be done.

The evidence was neither complete nor without conflict. After a month-long hearing and long deliberations, the coroner's jury of five found Constable Tsui Po-ko responsible for the unlawful killings of two fellow policemen and a bank security guard. His own death in a shoot-out between police in a Tsim Sha Tsui underpass last year was found to be a lawful killing. This is consistent with the police version that cast Tsui as a mentally disturbed, rogue policeman.

In fact, police already had blamed Tsui for all the killings within days of the underpass shooting, without fear of prejudicing a trial had he survived. They had a year to prepare the case for the coroner. If questions remain unanswered, there is no suggestion that the hearing itself was unfair. There remain, however, grounds for disquiet about the denial of legal aid to the Tsui family. That the hearing began without a lawyer in their corner, until a barrister donated his services, did not serve either the cause of justice or the public interest.

The findings were to be expected on the evidence given. Nonetheless we should still have room in our thoughts for all the families who lost a loved one. The inquest dragged out a harrowing ordeal. All are blameless and deserving of closure. The police force has closure, too, on one of the darkest episodes in its history. Like the bereaved families, it also has issues to deal with, only more openly. An obvious one is the case for psychological profiling of recruits.

New recruits are integrated into the community with firearms with which to protect themselves and the public. They have chosen a career that can be stressful, as evidenced both here and overseas. Depression and suicide are not uncommon among senior and junior officers alike. Yet, while the force tests recruits' physical fitness and integrity, it does not test their minds. Given the recognition of the link between stress and psychological disorders in urban communities, this seems a curious omission. Psychological testing of recruits is common among municipal police forces in the United States, for example.

In a recent interview, Commissioner of Police Tang King-shing did not rule out the introduction of some psychological testing, although this has drawn a lukewarm response from representatives of senior officers and the rank and file. In the light of the senseless loss of life, the force's leadership has a responsibility to at least address the issue by thoroughly researching it and producing a proposal for discussion.

In fact, it should consider follow-up testing from time to time for all ranks. Such tests are not a foolproof safeguard against criminal behaviour or self-harm, but they are better than doing nothing to identify people who need help. The considerable cost is bound to be cited, but that is no object, since it is impossible to place a value on a life destroyed or physically or mentally traumatised.