Good reason to keep faith with police neutrality

Bernard Chan believes most would agree frontline officers deserve respect

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Many years ago, I was driving in New York City and got pulled over by police. There was a lot of shouting and, as I reached for my identification, I found myself facing drawn guns. Then the officers realised they had the wrong car. Without a word of apology, they rushed off to chase whoever it was they were after.

On other occasions, I have experienced rudeness from American and other overseas law enforcers while peacefully going about my affairs and I know lots of other people have had similar experiences.

Perhaps we are spoilt in Hong Kong. We are used to police and other officials who are, for the most part, polite and respectful. We expect that.

We also expect them to be politically neutral in the performance of their duties. Unfortunately, the police now find themselves facing charges of political bias. As a result, they face the possibility of greater hostility from those who take part in political demonstrations.

Like most people, I was not present at the now-famous incident when teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze confronted and swore at police. I did see the video. I feel quite strongly that her behaviour was excessive. If she felt officers were being unfair in the way they were handling the two opposing groups that day, she could have gathered evidence and made a formal complaint. She herself was probably being unfair by blaming frontline officers who were trying to do a difficult job. In New York City, she would probably have ended up in handcuffs in the back of a van.

The allegation that the police are becoming politically biased is very serious. The idea that officers on the street are under orders from above to deal more harshly with one group than another seems unrealistic. The senior officer on any scene has a great deal of discretion about how to handle particular situations, and when there is pushing and shoving, or worse, he or she does not have time to take sides.

Some radical opposition groups have developed a reputation for relatively extreme actions, some of which are probably criminal; police have reported having whistles blown in their ears and being bitten.

Many people believe the police have, at times, been a bit too tolerant. It is now getting to the stage where outspoken pro-government groups are also becoming more aggressive. It is essential at this time that the police are seen by all to be even-handed, for two reasons.

First, it will help calm both sides. We all know Hong Kong faces certain problems and the government is having trouble winning the confidence of some parts of the community. But let's put things in perspective: we are luckier than we realise to live in a civilised, free, healthy and prosperous society. There is no reason for people to let their feelings get out of control.

Second, it will help guarantee that the police keep the respect of the whole community. There is obviously a big division in our society and the police should be something - maybe one of the few things - we can all agree on. I believe most people recognise our frontline police as neutral and dedicated to helping everyone impartially. Everyone, from political leaders to activists going on demonstrations, should help them keep and perform that role.

When I see constables trying to calm excited and angry protesters, I often wonder what they really think. How did they vote at the last Legislative Council election? What do they think of plans for new towns in the New Territories or the conversion of schools into the Direct Subsidy Scheme? They do have opinions. I am sure many of them are pro-democrats. But they are professional and keep it to themselves, even when surrounded by people shouting and abusing each other over political issues.

They deserve our respect and co-operation for that. They do not deserve to be shouted or sworn at.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council