Debts key factors in suicides by Hong Kong police officers

The number of police officers with gambling problems has dropped, but more should be done to help them, says one researcher

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 3:33am

The number of police officers struggling to repay debts has dropped since record highs a decade ago, but two suicides and one suicide attempt in less than a month have shone the spotlight on how the force deals with problems of gambling, debt and depression.

In the past three weeks, two police officers shot themselves in the head. Debts were understood to be contributing factors.

Another officer tried to commit suicide by burning charcoal to produce carbon monoxide, but was saved when his wife found him.

Tung Yiu-ming, vice-chairman of the Junior Police Officers' Association, said the problem of gambling debts was rife within the force until about 10 years ago. "But in recent years, money problems caused by gambling has dropped for police officers," he said. "The new guys are not as interested in gambling; they like sport or video games."

Tung said gambling was a tradition among the older generation "because with the pressure of police life, they wanted or needed something exciting".

In 2002, there were 302 officers with unmanageable debts. This figure was halved to 149 in 2005. At present, there are 71 officers with serious money problems, police say.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, a leading suicide researcher at the University of Hong Kong, said debt and relationship problems continued to be the main reasons behind officers' suicides. While the way police dealt with these issues had improved, more could be done, especially when it came to attitudes within the force.

"What we are concerned about is that the culture itself is not encouraging people to seek help," he said. "The message we are sending out is that seeking help is not a weakness."

Yip's recent research found that police were 20 per cent more likely to kill themselves compared to those in the general working population aged between 20 and 55.

The nature of police work might also make officers more vulnerable to financial problems, he said. "Does the lifestyle make them more prone to having money problems and if so, why?" Yip asked. " Is it the nature of the job? The 24-hour shift work? Some people might find the work boring and start gambling."

Officers aged in their 20s had been brought up very differently, Yip said, with a more sharing attitude which might not be accepted by older officers.

Last Monday, Detective Sergeant Lui Chi-keung, 47, shot himself in the head at the Shun Lee Disciplined Services Quarters. He joined the force in 1983 and was part of the Tsuen Wan criminal investigative section for nearly two years.

Two days later, it was reported that a 44-year-old policeman who had been suspended from duty for more than a year attempted to kill himself at his Kwai Chung flat by burning charcoal in a bedroom. His wife arrived home to find him unconscious.

Three weeks before, on July 20, Senior Constable Chan Yik-man, 40, shot himself in the head inside the Happy Valley police station.

In the past five years, 14 police officers have taken their lives.

Repeated requests to interview Dr Edmond Lau Kam-lun, head of the police psychological services, were refused.