Freedom with safety

IN his admirable and, at times, touching report on the Lan Kwai Fong tragedy, Mr Justice Bokhary makes a visible point of not apportioning blame. He is, despite the very human and personal tone of his remarks, both objective and fair - so much so, indeed, that he appears to avoid drawing obvious conclusions. When his full report is finally published, it may not be so fastidious.

Despite his reluctance to point an accusing finger, his interim report released yesterday inevitably contains criticisms of the police. Having accurately predicted the size of the crowd, and with 118 officers on duty in Lan Kwai Fong at the time of the tragedy, they were nevertheless unable to ensure the safety of the New Year's Eve revellers.

The police did not make the disaster happen, of course; the direct cause was extreme over-crowding. It was compounded by the steep slope, the slippery surface, the pushing and shoving, the drunkenness, some of it among underage drinkers, and by the convergence of crowds moving in different directions.

There is a clear implication in the report that by their failure both to restrict the numbers entering Lan Kwai Fong, or to equip themselves with loud-hailers as the most basic tool of crowd control, the police were guilty of errors of judgement. Mr Justice Bokhary is careful to say he understands why a degree of tolerance of the crowd's boisterousness was deemed appropriate on a New Year's Eve. However, he also argues that unless police officers are able to move freely among crowds on foot, ''it is difficult to see how they can effectively discharge their crowd control duty or indeed their general duty of watch and ward''.

The report is not blind to the constraints under which the police were operating, noting the argument, raised by a Fight Crime Committee member yesterday, that controlling access to a public place may be seen as an infringement of freedoms guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. However, Mr Justice Bokhary rightly believes the correct balance between freedom and safety can be struck. The right to life is also a fundamental human right.

Meanwhile, the lack of criticism of the Lan Kwai Fong tenants is instructive. The judge clearly does not believe the cause of safety is served by preventing them from going about the business of entertaining and serving customers, provided conditions of safety are met on the street outside.

He is not, however, silent on the matter of granting licences for entertainment events - calling for increased care whenever any such event might lead to or exacerbate crowd control difficulties, and questioning the wisdom of accepting without question the application for a licence to hold a pop concert from the Hongkong Commercial Broadcasting company. As a British police report on New Year's Eve crowd control in London's Trafalgar Square warns, it may be unwise to hold a pop concert which could attract extra revellers to such a crowded area.

While only one of the 21 who died - an adult - had been drinking heavily, others in the crowd were under the influence of alcohol - at that time, that can only be expected. The Lan Kwai Fong tragedy was not, it should be stressed, caused by underage drinking. However it has highlighted a problem Mr Justice Bokhary has characterised as one that will not be solved quickly or easily, and one which the police must take into account in future crowd control arrangements.

It would have been futile for Mr Justice Bokhary to have shrugged his shoulders, and excused the tragedy as something nobody could have foreseen. Instead, he has tried to draw some conclusions as to how similar disasters could be avoided in the future.

Fairly or unfairly, the police were bound to be held responsible for failing to foresee the dangers, and erring on the side of tolerance. It is to be hoped that in his final report - which will no doubt have the benefit of the police conclusions on whathappened - Mr Justice Bokhary will also come up with more clearly defined guidelines for future police action which will relieve some of the moral burden on the individual officer called on to decide when the balance between freedom and safety is about to be upset.