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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 7:48am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Stop-and-search police powers vital to keep order

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 3:34am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 3:34am

Maintaining law and order in a city with seven million inhabitants is no easy task. The challenge is even bigger when some 42 million visitors pass through our door each year under a relatively free entry-and-exit regime. Thankfully, our crime rate remains one of the lowest in the world. This owes much to the hard work and professionalism of the police and other disciplined forces.

Questions have been raised as to whether the police have arbitrarily invoked their power in routine work. This fear was highlighted in recent a Sunday Morning Post report, which showed officers carry out four times as many identity checks and on-the-spot searches as their counterparts in New York and London, even though those two cities have bigger populations and higher crime rates. There were 1,637,334 stop-and-search checks in the city last year; a further 345,917 people were stopped and questioned. That means there were 4,485 checks each day; or around 10 checks in any hour in each of the 18 districts.

The law empowers a police officer to stop and search a person who acts in a suspicious manner. The officer can also search a person whom he reasonably suspects of having committed, or of being about to commit, or of intending to commit any offence. Sweeping as it may seem, the power remains an essential law enforcement tool. There are cases in which routine checks have resulted in arrests; sometimes even gunshots and violence on the spot.

Some overseas human rights activists and academics have long been critical about the use of such power. In August, a federal judge in the United States ruled that stop-and-search by the New York police violated the constitutional rights of minorities. Nine in 10 of those checks involved ethnic minorities. The situation in Britain is similar, with a quarter of the searches said to be unjustified. Statistically, the police are 30 times more likely to stop black people than whites.

There is no evidence to suggest Hong Kong police have abused power. But ethnic groups appear to think otherwise. A Lahore-born tailor interviewed by this paper said he had been stopped and frisked 10 times in the past month. Unfortunately, comparisons cannot be made as the force says it does not keep figures on race. That said, the police should avoid giving the impression that some people are subject to racial profiling. It is important that there are reasonable grounds for such checks.


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This article is now closed to comments

I agree that in general Hong Kong police are professional. Of course every organization has some bad apples within their ranks and the Hong Kong police are no different. Stop and search can be both good and bad. If people are aware of police presence they are more likely to obey the law. On the other hand some police seem to focus on minorities or youth, some get stopped several times a month and are never found to be doing anything wrong. This is percieved as harassment by those concerned.
The other area that police can improve is in their handling of protests. It seems that many officers view protesters as enemies instead of people exercising their right to voice their opinions.
HK police ought to have this power ; BUT, they have mis-used it, over-used it and as such there ought to be more controls, or strict guidelines on the use of this power; and that failure to do so must be a CAPO issue automatically. SCMP is wrong to say there is no evidence to suggest HK police had abused this power! Furthermore, SCMP ought to highlight the very low percentage of law-breakers that had been stop-and-searched. I am sure this percentage is even lower than successful sale rate of street insurance vendors.
This cuts both ways. There is no evidence of racial profiling. There is also no evidence that they're not targeting based on race. Ultimately it's all conjecture unless and until they start to collect race data on their own activities.
It would also be interesting to establish that these search powers actually reduce/prevent crime, and to quantitate any such effect. For instance, a comparison of year-to-year search numbers with year-to-year crime numbers. Admittedly, this would still only show correlation, and not prove causation.
Categorising this article as an "editorial" is probably stretching the truth. The language and tone strongly suggest that it came directly from the police PR department.
of course there are no records of whom the police (on beat) spot checked on the streets of hk. why would i want to record something that, with even a cursory glance, will throw me in poor light?
i have been on the receiving end too.
because i was wearing daggy clothes, carried a well worn green coloured backpack, and appeared hesitant standing at a corner street somewhere in central.
worn clothes are comfortable; my equally daggy backpack had plenty of sentimental value to me; hesitant because i lost sight of my wife who wandered into a nearby shop with our 2yr old daughter.
i didnt like the looks on the two policemen and one policewoman - as much as they didnt like mine, i suppose.
i was asked in cantonese; i responded in english; i asked why they chose to stop me; they launched into some broken english on their right to spot check...blah...blah; i told them - you misunderstand my question, i am not questioning your right to stop me. i am asking "why me?".
by then my wife rejoined us. the policewoman tried to explain to my wife that - these days they are many "cousins from the north...". that got me fired up, and i responded in cantonese - wake up and suck it up. this is post july 1997, accept that hk has now been returned to china....
The biggest single reason for HK's relatively low crime rate is that the population is so densely concentrated and our police force is so large that it can afford to put many officers on foot patrol making the average downtown response time about 4 minutes.
It would be helpful to see some statistics which show us the proportion of stop-and-search vs detected offenders through the stop-and-search over the last 30-40 years. If we can see a clear decline of offenses in such period I believe people can see the merit in stop-and-search activities in HK.
Due to HK's unique situation of high percentage of foreign works and visitors, HK has a fair amount of overstayers, illegal workers etc. To find these offenders isn't it logic that non-locals are checked ? Who are minorities ? I guess all non-local need to be considered minorities, being it Indian, Filipinos, French or Americans. And without being racist, I assume that statistics would prove that there are more overstayers in HK coming from Asian countries than from Europe or the USA.
Here some investigative journalism would be appreciated.


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