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.