Should there be new laws protecting Hong Kong police from abuse?
Unions and groups in the force have called for this following outrage over the sentencing of seven convicted officers
In the wake of Wednesday night’s 33,000-strong demonstration to show support for seven officers convicted of beating up an Occupy activist, groups and unions in the force have once again called for new laws to criminalise offensive language and abuse against public officers.
The seven policemen were sentenced to two years’ jail after being convicted of kicking and punching activist Ken Tsang Kin-chiu following his arrest for assaulting officers during an Occupy protest more than two years ago.
But Hong Kong isn’t the only city where the relationship between the public and the police can be tenuous. Here’s how various laws regarding the issue across jurisdictions measure up:
Under the law, the mere act of verbally abusing or insulting another person or a public officer does not usually constitute an offence. Under the Public Order Ordinance (Cap. 245), a person can however, be arrested if the abuser goes further and includes words that are “threatening, abusing or insulting” to the officer with “intent to provoke a breach of the peace”. The person can also face action for resisting or obstructing an officer engaged in public duty. Swearing in public is not illegal although by-laws regulate swearing in certain places – Ocean Park and MTR premises, for example – or in certain trades, but are generally not considered recordable offences or crimes.
Swearing or insulting a police officer in Britain does not specifically constitute an offence, nor is it even a crime to swear in public. However under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, a person can be arrested if swearing in public causes “harassment, alarm or distress”. But such cases have proven difficult to prosecute. In 2011, British courts overturned a public order conviction of a young suspect who had been arrested for allegedly causing alarm or distress by repeatedly saying the “F” word to police officers while being searched. A High Court judge ruled that swearing at police was not a crime because officers heard foul language “too frequently” to be offended.
There has been debate as to whether the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects a citizen’s right to use profanity against the police. Swearing is not considered a crime and is protected by free speech rights. In 2001, a federal appeals court overturned two convictions, ruling that swearing at police amounted to criticism, not crime. US courts have ruled that showing a middle finger to a police officer did not constitute a crime either. Police on the receiving end of verbal abuse do however make arrests if the actions are considered disorderly conduct or creating public disturbances. Such arrests are common but controversial in America and have spawned the term “contempt of cop”.
In France, directing insults or abusive behaviour – or “outrage” – including spoken or written words, body gestures, threats, images or throwing objects at law enforcement officers or public servants that undermine their dignity or authority is a crime. Any person found guilty of swearing at a public duty officer from a policeman to a public transport employee could face a €7,500 (HK$61,400) fine and six months of jail time. French authorities have also been criticised for extending too much power to the police with at least one 2009 Amnesty International report slamming French police for acting “above the law”.
Threatening, abusing or insulting public servants or public service workers in private and public places are punishable offences in Singapore. This includes using any indecent, threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the public servant or worker in the execution of his duty. Under the Protection from Harassment Act, those convicted are liable to a S$5,000 (HK$27,400) fine and under one year in prison.