Police guidelines on dealing with verbal abuse strike the right balance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 3:59am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 3:59am

Verbal abuse is to be frowned upon in any civilised society, even more so when it disrupts public order or hinders law enforcement. While most Hongkongers are largely law-abiding and co-operative with law enforcers, confrontations are not uncommon. Amid concerns over the growing pressure faced by frontline officers, the police are preparing new guidelines that they say will enhance enforcement. Although the move is understandable, it could be misunderstood as a step to enhanced police powers in handling unruly behaviour. Given the sensitivity, police should carefully examine the potential impact on rights and freedoms - and ensure the rules are not used to restrict what is permitted within the law.

Currently, the mere act of swearing is not a crime. But there are by-laws prohibiting the use of foul language in public hospitals and on public transport. If it goes further with the intent to provoke a breach of peace, it is an offence under the Public Order Ordinance. Separately, those who resist or obstruct police officers in the performance of lawful duties may also be prosecuted. They appear to be sufficient safeguards for maintaining law and order. But as experience has shown, the way the statute is enforced can be a matter of public concern. This is even more so in the context of public protests, where clashes with law enforcers appear to be on the rise.

The idea of introducing a new offence targeting those who insult officers was first mooted a decade ago amid a perceived increase in aggressive behaviour towards the police. It returned to the spotlight after a teacher swore at officers over their handling of a protest in July. The authorities are probably aware of the social sentiments and have sensibly put the agenda aside. Instead, they seek to clarify how officers are to handle situations involving insults and abuses. Under the guidelines, the police should first caution the person, followed by a formal warning. Arrest may follow if the abuse continues. To avoid being seen as curbing freedom of expression, the guidelines will not apply to protests. The arrangement appears to be reasonable.

Maintaining law and order for seven million people is not easy. It can only be achieved by upholding law enforcers' power and authority. There are always those who like to vent their anger at symbols of authority or do not give the officers the respect they deserve. Hopefully, the guidelines will facilitate enforcement rather than straining police-community relations.