Public safety should always come first
The media has long played an important role in reporting on the day-to-day operations of the police. This not only serves the media's role as a public watchdog, it also provides the public with a window on the way that law and order, which lies at the heart of our city's reputation as a safe place, is being maintained. The media can also help the police by alerting the public to dangers and seeking the help of the community in catching criminals. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.
That said, the media and the police serve the public in different ways and it is a relationship that must be nurtured by trust and communication. In the days before police communications went digital, the media could monitor them to follow police operations. Nowadays, media organisations rely partly on police public relations officers to keep in touch, which has led to criticism of the way in which information about crimes and accidents are distributed.
The issue has come to a head recently with the failure of police to tell the public promptly about two serial crimes - a series of knife attacks in Tseung Kwan O and two sexual molestation cases in Kwun Tong involving four school students. Happily, this appears to have resulted in a more liberal disclosure policy, with a sharp increase in the number of crime news reports by the Police Public Relations Branch. And Police Commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung says the force will hire more public relations contract staff this year and review the way it releases information, subject to other public-interest factors such as the privacy of victims, public safety and ongoing investigations.
It is not clear how public safety was served by failure to report the two serial crimes. There are sometimes operational reasons which would justify the police in not disclosing information immediately. But details should be made available to the public at the first possible opportunity, unless there are very good reasons for not doing so. That is the best way in which to serve the public interest.