New trials for city's law enforcers when peer groups clash

As more protests brew and protesters get younger, officers can face value challenges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 4:39am

When post-80s- or post-90s-generation police meet protesters, especially radical ones, in the same age group, there seems to be a love-hate relationship.

I learned this during a recent meeting with several senior officers and also heard that the police are now studying the reasons behind these feelings.

In a city as free and plural as Hong Kong, protests are a common sight. We have the right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly, but there are those who are always on the front line confronting the protesters - the police officers who keep things lawful, and as peaceful as possible.

So how can we keep the police, who should be impartial servants of the law, calm and neutral when facing different demands from the protesters? And how can we ensure they do not become the "natural foes" of the protesters? There are, of course, various types of training, but one type - "values training" - is particularly interesting.

People of the same age tend to share the same values; that is how and why a generation gap develops. Within the police force there are three generations: older people approaching their retirement age of 55; middle-aged people born between the 1960s and 1970s; and the post-80s, and now post-90s group, known as Generation Y.

But once a person joins the force they must share one value - to maintain law and order with impartiality regardless of one's personal background. Police action can only be taken when someone crosses the legal line.

For protesters, different age groups come with different styles too. With younger, and sometimes more radical, protesters joining groups, it is becoming increasingly common to see younger police officers sent in to handle their peers.

This is understood to be a police tactic.

But this tactic can go awry when young people with diametrically opposing viewpoints meet in confronting or chaotic situations and encounter a conflict of values.

Outsiders may not fully understand the complexity of these confrontations.

These young people may once have been childhood friends, or school mates or friends of friends.

Simply put, they could have been friends under different circumstances.

But are they really confronting each other? The answer is yes and no. "Yes" when the protests go beyond the law; "no" because police should not be the target of political criticism simply because they are doing their job. The police should also respect the legitimate rights of their protesting peers.

The Hong Kong Police can be proud of being one of the best disciplined forces in the world. But worrying signs are emerging. Not only is the force facing growing political pressure from certain people, accusing it of taking more aggressive action against protesters, next year will also see a significant number of senior officers retiring.

According to a South China Morning Post report, some officers have been asked to extend their service by three months to ensure a smoother transition of manpower.

A Chinese saying explains this rule of nature: "The waves behind always drive the waves ahead in the Yangtze River."

In the police, as older officers leave, younger officers rise through the ranks and a new generation of protesters show their discontent in their own way - by showing defiance to the authorities.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will hold his third "meet the people" session in mid-September, at the Hong Kong Public Library in Causeway Bay. Expect another protest then - and in the following months and years to come. Younger people will attend; and younger police officers will be called on more often to keep the peace.

Whatever conflicts arise, we expect and trust the police to carry out their duties professionally and according to the law. Let's have faith in the rule of law - and in our city's law enforcers.