36pc rise in use of pepper spray by Hong Kong police on protesters
Concern group complains the use of such force has become routine, but officers say they now face more violent activists
Hong Kong police used pepper spray 36 per cent more often in the first 11 months of the last financial year than in the whole of 2015-16 – 340 times compared with 249
The rise came as the force recorded 11,854 public assemblies in 2016, more than double the 4,887 handled in 2015, while the number of public processions jumped by 14 per cent to 1,304.
A concern group questioned if police needed to use pepper spray more frequently, while officers blamed protesters for getting more violent.
The figures were released by the Security Bureau in a written reply to lawmaker Kenneth Leung, who raised questions related to the force’s operational expenses in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
The bureau did not elaborate on reasons for the surge.
Two frontline police officers approached by the Post both suggested that pepper spray was mainly used in a demonstration on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, and at a rally outside the central government’s liaison office in Sai Wan after Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law in November, which effectively disqualified two lawmakers who refused to pledge allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China.
“Protesters have become more violent in recent years and constantly charge our cordon lines. It leaves us no choice but to spray pepper on them to keep a safe distance,” one of the officers said, adding that most of the assemblies were peaceful.
Andrew Shum Wai-nam of the Civil Rights Observer, which monitors police, found the surge surprising and said the use of pepper spray had become a routine measure.
“Is it a must to use it when protesters charge officers? There are many alternatives. Officers did not use much pepper spray in the past when handling similar situations,” Shum said.
During the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014-15, the force used pepper spray 1,644 times, with 96 per cent of their actions related to maintaining public order, the Security Bureau said.
But the force did not use pepper spray during public order events in 2013-2014.
The bureau and police department consistently emphasised in the past that there were strict guidelines on the use of force.
“The force to be used shall be the minimum necessary for achieving the purpose of a police operation,” security minister Lai Tung-kwok told the Legislative Council at the height of the Occupy movement in October 2014.
The chapter in the Police General Orders on the use of force and firearms was not made available to the public. A police spokesman said disclosure of such information might hamper the force’s operations.