IT is easy to believe after last year's shootings and the recent fatal assault on an auxiliary policeman on duty in Shamshuipo, that it is not safe for the police to patrol the streets of the territory. This can be remedied. The critical question is: has the Government really given the commitment to the force that is needed to guarantee the security of people in the territory? In the absence of proper solutions to the problems affecting the force, I would bet my last pay cheque that there will be trouble over law and order here some day. Though part of the Government service, police must put up with a shift system which rigidly sets a workload of 51 hours a week for most officers (except administrators) against the 43 hours which are widely adopted in the rest of the local civil service. This shift system, operated purely to save money, reflects the antiquated thinking of the powers that be. It creates great stress, ill health and fatigue for the average policeman deployed on the street and faced with rapidly-changing law and order situations. The number of police assigned to a district depends on two factors; the population size and what special features are in the district - that is, whether there are any high risk premises, such as banks and goldsmiths which require special attention. Generally speaking, only about 60 to 65 per cent of the required police coverage is put on the streets. This is partly caused by the fact that police are also deployed to cover duties, such as assisting other government departments with escort duties and other such matters. The other way to tackle this problem is to increase manpower, a solution which the Government is most reluctant to offer. Unfortunately, the people in the front line who are facing the greatest pressure and dangers are treated with less importance than some administrative counterparts stationed back at headquarters. The police on the streets are not getting the training and the support they deserve. Recent incidents have shown clearly that an officer can patrol his beat in safety if he or she is fully trained with proper back-up. It is perhaps time for the administration to review such an inequitable allocation of police resources. Police equipment badly needs improvement. Current drawbacks include a uniform which is not fire proof and never comfortable, a baton that is useless, uncomfortable shoes which are poorly designed and cumbersome caps. It took about a year to issue new revolvers, following the big shoot-outs of 1992. Patrol vans, with the exception of those belonging to Emergency Units, are not air-conditioned. In brief, the Government has been buying, in many cases, the most inexpensive equipment at the expense of the optimal operational effectiveness of the force. A POLICEMAN must have full confidence in his equipment. He must have the best to work to the best of his ability. The force's equipment must therefore be upgraded without delay, to make it durable, lighter and more comfortable. They have to be assured of full support at all times in terms of manpower, equipment and transport. If an officer makes an emergency call for help, fellow officers should at the scene within a few minutes. Do they have this support? Has the police force introduced sufficient quality control in finding new recruits, or has it been the case of grabbing what comes along? It has been said that some ranks cannot even write Chinese properly despite their routine duties of serving mostly people who read and write that language. Look at the average officer on the beat.He appears young, weak in stature and fails to portray the image of a policeman. If the quality of the force needs to be questioned, so must the quality of the training that is provided for its officers. Does an average constable in training spend too much time square bashing? Has he or she been trained to meet all contingencies onthe street? About 70 per cent of beat constables have less than three years' experience. A good policeman develops through experience and training. Inadequacies are now being highlighted in the force. Many of them simply are not physically tough enough to tackle trouble makers. In general, a policeman fires fewer than 200 rounds of ammunition per year, in four practice and qualification shoots. Now new revolvers are available, but ranges are in short supply, with only one range in Kowloon. Weapon handling skills are questionable as training is not available on a regular basis. Inadequacies in physical and practical training, legal knowledge, tactical knowledge and skills for law enforcement on the street leave much to be desired. Continuing education and training to augment basic pre-service drills is a must to boost the force's professional performance. However, from late last year, retraining time per man has been cut to one day a month for 12 months. Previously the standard was two days each month for 24 months. With less than four years before the handover to China and the growing incidence and gravity of cross-border crimes, keeping the territory a free and safe place is a prime concern. The present quality of officers put on regular beat duties is a matter of concern which needs immediate attention. It reflects the outmoded ideology and thinking of those at the higher level of the decision-making hierarchy. In terms of training and equipment, are we offering the force the best or just the cheapest? It is distressing that while the life expectancy of our community is moving up, it is not so with retired policemen who cannot on average expect to live beyond 70, primarily because of the constant stress levels endured over long years of service in the force. There has been so much talk of gearing up the force, yet no one is willing and ready to give the money. Look at the budget and the Governor's policy address this year, it shows the position. Is it not high time for us to do something brave and fair for the police force, which carries the ''Royal'' label but not its real blessings? A professional, well-equipped and dedicated police force would make it unnecessary to station large numbers of PLA in Hong Kong. Mervyn Cheung Man-ping is a member of Shamshuipo District Board and Shamshuipo District Fight Crime Committee.