Climate change

Police complaints council lacks resources to do its job

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2011, 12:00am

Apart from a stint as a legislative councillor I have always resisted the idea of joining public office or being a member of statutory advisory bodies because I believe they are breeding grounds for those who want to earn titles and honours for doing their 'public duty'. And these places are often monopolised by members of the pro-government camp.

I made an exception with the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) because I strongly believe the police complaints system should be operated independently and that it should be fair, effective and transparent to maintain its credibility and earn public trust.

The IPCC is an autonomous body, set up in 2009. It comprises independent members appointed by the government with the task of reviewing complaints from the public. It does meaningful work that has far-reaching consequences.

In fact, the IPCC is overloaded with complaints, which have been rising steadily in recent years, because members of the public have become more aware of their rights. Furthermore, economic uncertainty has boiled over and prompted a rise in social conflicts.

Frontline police officers have to constantly deal with the public and, as a result, have been the subject of more complaints than officials from other departments. Most complaints of police misconduct are fairly trivial, such as the use of bad language. Many allegations are unfounded. There have been cases in which officers were accused of bias in dealing with domestic disputes and many involving the issuing of traffic tickets. But, no matter how minor a complaint appears, the IPCC has to handle each case seriously to resolve them satisfactorily.

With a force of some 30,000 officers, the roughly 4,000 complaints received annually - of which only a few hundred are substantiated - indicates a relatively low ratio. It's fair to say that our police force is civil and highly professional - no doubt, one of the best in the world.

Still, the IPCC believes there is room for improvement in frontline police work to minimise conflict with the public and reduce complaints. For example, the random identity card checks, as a form of crime prevention, are a waste of time and manpower. Last year, the police carried out more than 1.2 million stop-and-search actions, many of which gave rise to public complaints. These checks have caused public inconvenience and harmed public-police relations more than anything else.

The police need to provide the IPCC with scientific proof that such checks truly contribute to crime prevention. But, despite repeat requests, this hasn't happened.

The IPCC is also seriously deprived of resources compared to other statutory bodies that also serve as government watchdogs. The annual budget for the Office of the Ombudsman, for example, is more than HK$89 million. In the 2010-11 financial year, it handled 5,339 cases; the Privacy Commission in 2009-10 got HK$45 million and handled 1,022 cases. In the same year, the Equal Opportunities Commission's budget was HK$84 million while it dealt with 1,144 cases.

The IPCC's annual budget for 2010-11 was about HK$28 million but has to deal with more than 4,000 cases a year plus increased publicity and community work. The resources are disproportionate to the amount of work. A request for an additional HK$7 million was recently rejected

It's absurd that some bureaucrats fail to see the importance of building a stronger IPCC team. Unwarranted bureaucracy seems to have blinded the judgment of Treasury officials.

To operate efficiently and measure up to public expectations, the IPCC needs to be adequately staffed and be on an equal footing with other statutory bodies. That should include a 50 per cent increase in the manpower of the vetting team - the equivalent of seven extra officers - and reviewing the salary of its secretary general, to bring it in line with that of the heads of other statutory bodies.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of the IPCC.