Police should keep protesters in the loop

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am

Recent mass protests have signalled the emergence of political activism among young people - the so-called post-1980s generation. They are not as predictable as their elders, as evidenced by exuberance and overzealousness at times. That has prompted police to compile a manual of revamped guidelines for handling demonstrations, which at present are only to be found scattered among various documents. It sounds like a bit of sensible administrative housekeeping, except that the new manual will not be public. A senior tactical unit commander says the public order manual for officers handling crowds on festive occasions or during protests will be for their eyes only. That is not particularly helpful.

Both protesters and police have come under fire over recent demonstrations, for example when protesters charged police outside the central government's liaison office last New Year's Day and when police arrested an activist who sprayed champagne on a security guard at the same place in October. But generally things are so peaceful and orderly that police rarely lay a charge. That is in keeping with the city's robust culture of free speech.

Protests are part of our way of life. What is different now is the increasing participation of young people, motivated by a sense of exclusion and easily mobilised by cellphones and the internet. Thankfully, they have embraced the spirit of peaceful protest. The sit-in during the demolition of the Star Ferry pier was the exception that proves the rule and reflected a government consultation process that failed to tap into the strength of public sentiment.

It is understandable police might want to keep some of their cards close to their chest for dealing with serious disorder, but since protesters generally play by the rules of restraint and rational discussion, more transparency would help avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. The head of the police complaints and internal investigations branch says the force will examine how to pass on some of the key messages in the manual to the public. For the sake of people's trust and support, they should not be too selective.