The first duty of police officers is to protect lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

The stopping and commandeering of private vehicles on the highway to form a roadblock against lawbreakers sounds like the stuff of Hollywood movie stunts. It is hard to believe that until recently it was the long-standing practice of Hong Kong police. It was last implemented just 16 months ago in an early-morning operation to stop an illegal road race. This time, though, things went badly wrong and it is fortunate no one was killed.

A bungled operation caused a pile-up after the racing cars crashed into a roadblock of five vehicles on the Kwun Tong Bypass. Six people were injured, including a taxi driver who did not have time to get out of his vehicle after police commandeered it. In a rare move, the police commissioner apologised to the drivers and admitted 'an error of judgment' had been made in the way the operation was conducted. The case had a sequel in the District Court last week when the five illegal road racers were jailed for periods of a year to 15 months; the longest term was given to three who escaped after hitting the roadblock by driving the wrong way against the flow of traffic.

Judge Kevin Browne rightly said the police order to the five drivers to form a roadblock was inappropriate and could have had far worse consequences.

The first duty of police officers is to protect lives; they must also respect people's property. The operation to stop the illegal road race fell short on both counts. It is important to deter road races and catch those responsible, but it must not be done by putting innocent people in harm's way, either through the use of roadblocks or by conducting high-speed chases. Officers should move private vehicles quickly out of harm's way.

Happily, that is now more likely to be the response, with roadblocks - using unmarked police vehicles - permissible in exceptional cases. That said, the illegal racers risked their own lives and those of others for thrills. The court was right to deter such reprehensible behaviour by imposing jail sentences rather than fines, to be followed by lengthy licence suspensions.