Mong Kok riot

Pepper balls and paintball guns: Hong Kong police test tear gas alternatives in wake of Mong Kok riot

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 12:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 12:45pm

Police have been testing crowd control alternatives to tear gas, with the focus on pepper fired paintball-style from guns, the Post has learned, in the wake of the Mong Kok riot.

Sources said tear gas was no longer considered the best option after it was used on protesters during the Occupy movement of 2014, as it generated widespread public resentment. It could also have a more toxic effect because of Hong Kong’s built-up neighbourhoods.

The force has also finalised the list of officers to be commended for their handling of the riot in February. Up to 300 of them, or a quarter of the manpower deployed in Mong Kok that night, will be honoured, including the traffic policeman who controversially fired two live rounds in the air when confronted by rioters.

The internal review committee looking into the clashes between police and protesters on the first night of the Lunar New Year recommended last week that the force purchase mid-range crowd control equipment, including pepper balls and guns, to ensure officers kept a safe distance from armed protesters in the event of future mob violence.

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A source close to the matter told the Post that the Police Tactical Unit (PTU) was running a trial on the use of pepper balls.

“The unit is testing the firing range and the effects on human bodies,” the source said. “We will then submit a review report on this new gear and let the management make the final decision.”

Fired from modified paintball guns, pepper balls are frangible projectile versions of pepper spray, which contains powdered chemicals that irritates the eyes and nose. Officers can fire them from a range of 10-50 metres.

The Correctional Services Department and Immigration Department are already equipped with pepper balls to handle close-quarters riots in prisons and detention facilities.

At a press conference on Wednesday on the city’s latest crime statistics, top brass did not officially disclose what gear the force would beef up, while acknowledging the need for frontline officers to maintain a distance when facing violent mobs.

“We do not have a definite answer as to what to acquire at the moment. We are looking into options,” Director of Operations Alan Lau Yip-shing said.

He explained that in addition to trial runs, the force would draw up guidelines on the use of the new equipment.

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The Mong Kok riot lasted more than 10 hours and left more than 130 people injured.

Rampaging protesters lit fires at 22 different locations, and dug up 2,000 bricks from pavements to throw at police officers.

Lau said tactical advisers from the PTU or the Hong Kong Police College would be deployed on the ground during such clashes in future, as recommended in the review report.

On commendations for officers involved in the riot, the source said the number had gone up since the Postreported it, to 300 officers and 15 units, to avoid “unhappiness among colleagues”. Four officers will receive a “lanyard in colours” – a police commissioner’s commendation for “outstanding work” that went “beyond the call of duty”.

They include the officer who opened fire as well as the injured colleague he was trying to protect.