Should police firearms rules be made public in wake of fatal shooting?

Fewer than half the chapters of guidelines for officers are public … with those on contentious matters like firearms kept secret

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 12:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 3:09am

Monday's fatal shooting of a man by two police officers and the use of pepper spray on protesters on Sunday has renewed a debate on whether the force should make more of its guidelines public.

The question of whether officers followed police rules when they shot 21-year-old Ho Sai-tung is the subject of an internal investigation launched after the incident on Monday. The force had also received two complaints from people not directly connected to the case, said the watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council.

But members of the public cannot make their own judgment as the relevant chapters of the Police General Orders are not available for inspection. Fewer than half the chapters are available online, while those that can be viewed may be missing sections.

So while people can find out from the force website the rules on officers' investments, gambling and even when a constable has to salute a superior officer, information on firearms is absent.

University of Hong Kong legal expert Eric Cheung Tat-ming says the city lags behind other jurisdictions on transparency of police firearms rules. He believes many reasons for keeping the rules secret are obsolete. "There were concerns in the past about whether making the guidelines public would assist criminals" by informing them of how officers would act in a given situation, Cheung said. "But this should be less of a concern today."

Media reports had given the public a fair idea of the regulations, Cheung said, and making the rules public would prevent speculation over whether they had been followed.

The question of whether police followed the rules also came up after a protest on Sunday in which pepper spray was used on protesters who wanted to deviate from their agreed route during a march against "white elephant" infrastructure projects. Police defended their actions, saying officers had stuck to the guidelines.

Icarus Wong Ho-yin, convenor of monitoring group the Civil Human Rights Front, said people would have greater trust in the force if they could decide for themselves whether rules were followed. "Police should stop reiterating the official line that rules are obeyed and instead explain in greater detail how the guidelines are enforced," Wong said.

But a veteran policeman, who declined to be named, argued the need to keep guidelines secret may still apply today. "If the guidelines on use of firearms are disclosed, criminals may exploit the rules and make it harder for policemen," he said.

A police spokesman said chapter 29 of the general orders, which sets out rules on the use of force and firearms, was not disclosed as it covered "operational matters that, if made generally available to the public, may adversely affect the police response to incidents".