A police officer "with unmanageable debts" killed himself with a single shot to the head inside Happy Valley police station yesterday, reigniting concerns about the long-standing problem of indebtedness within the force.
Senior Constable Chan Yik-man, 40, was found slumped in a toilet on the fourth floor of the station shortly after 3pm. Assistant District Commander Wan Siu-hung said Chan attended a regular morning conference after reporting for duty at 10am but went missing at 11.30am.
Fellow officers looked for him and later found him dead in the toilet with a single bullet wound to his right temple, Wan said, adding that the sound of the gun shot may have been masked by noise from renovation work on the station's drainage system.
A police spokesman said 14 officers had taken their own lives in the past five years.
A suicide note in Chan's locker said he was unhappy, but Wan declined to elaborate on it.
Police sources said Chan, who was single and lived with his parents in Chai Wan, had "unmanageable debts". Wan said debt was one line of inquiry.
Chan, who joined the force in November 1992, took up duties with the patrol sub-unit at Happy Valley in April last year. He was awarded a long-service medal in 2010. Wan said the force would provide psychological support to his family.
Debt-linked suicides have been a long-standing problem for the force. In the first half of the year, 71 police officers were identified with unmanageable debts. Nearly 70 per cent said their debts were due to problems of family members and relatives, government statistics show.
Last year, 146 officers were reported to have unmanageable debts, compared to 169 in 2011.
A report by researchers at the University of Hong Kong last September showed the suicide rate among police officers was 20 per cent higher than in the overall working population.
Between 2003 and 2010 the rate among officers was 7.8 per 100,000, a rise of 9.4 per cent over the period, showed a study by the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention. People in the "helping" and "caring" professions - such as policemen, nurses and teachers - have the most difficulty getting help and care when they need it, researchers found.
Joe Chan Cho-kwong, chairman of the Junior Police Officers' Association, described psychological support in the force as sufficient and accessible, but "whether colleagues are willing to seek help is another matter".
"Policemen treat their self-image very highly. They may not talk about their problems to other people," said Chan.
He attributed the high suicide rate to pressure at work.
"We face danger once we start to work, and often things happen unexpectedly. We are the people who handle social issues. How can our lives be easy?"
Debt was less of a problem in the force today than it had been in the past because the way officers deal with managing their finances had changed over the years, Chan added.
In 2008, the Local Inspectors Association pledged to encourage a "psychologically healthy working environment" after a veteran officer, Senior Inspector Michael Chan Kung-wai, committed suicide in Wan Chai police headquarters.
In 2002, then police commissioner Tsang Yam-pui said suicides were a reflection of societal problems. That year, the police set up a working group to improve support for officers in distress. One-third of suicide cases were blamed on bad debts.
In the late 1990s, police psychologists struggled with their workload as more officers signed up for counselling sessions, and in 2001 police considered hiring contract psychologists.
In 1993, the rate of police suicide hit a record of 22 per 100,000 people.
Additional reporting by John Carney