The need for a proud, trusted police force is greater than ever
A demonstration of support for seven jailed officers by an estimated 33,000 serving and retired police highlights an alarming collapse in morale
If Hong Kong is one of the world’s safest cities it follows that its police force should neither lack self-esteem nor confidence that the public reciprocates. On that count, therefore, morale should not be an issue. But evidence to the contrary has been mounting for some time. It came to a head this week when an estimated 33,000 serving and retired police officers demonstrated their support for seven colleagues jailed for assaulting an activist during the 2014 Occupy protests. Yet no one denied that what they did was wrong. Spokesmen were at pains to reaffirm respect for the judicial process, and disavow any suggestion of protest against the courts or attempt to undermine the rule of law. It was all about the perception of unfairness in the two-year jail sentences handed down, given supercharged emotions and stress on overworked police at the time.
But the real issue behind the expression of frustration and anger is an alarming collapse in police morale. If the seven have become lightning rods for symptoms of it, the clouds of demoralisation were seeded by the confrontation between police and protesters amid the unprecedented scale of civil disobedience during the Occupy protest.
Until then the police had been caught in the middle for years as Hongkongers increasingly exercised their right to protest, without any real harm to their positive image. If there was a tipping point in morale it goes to a shift in the perception of police by some people after Occupy, especially among the young, characterised by disrespectful behaviour and clashes such as the Mong Kok riot and that outside Beijing’s liaison office late last year. Among police the perception remains that they are being victimised for following orders – a discipline drummed into them from day one. It cannot be good for society if police develop this kind of siege mentality.
Right or wrong aside, we cannot make light of the fact that tens of thousands of our active and retired police felt strongly enough to take to the streets. It was one of the most significant demonstrations in the history of a city whose future is inextricably interwoven with safe streets, the rule of law and respect for an independent judiciary. In the 20th anniversary year of the handover, it presents a political challenge that the city’s leaders and people must take up.
One suggestion, a law to make insulting police a crime, is controversial, though it could be a starting point for debate. Perhaps we can learn from the 1960s and 1970s, when police addressed low morale amid corruption scandals with an education campaign that showcased their role in fighting crime and keeping our streets and neighbourhoods safe. Gradually, negative public perceptions changed. These are different times, complicated by politics. But the need for a proud, trusted police force is greater than ever.