The illicit activities of triad gangs and the attempts by police to curb them have long been a prominent feature of Hong Kong life. But the claim by a senior officer this week that triads have declared war on the police is unusual - and alarming. It implies that the threat posed by the gangs to law and order is getting out of hand. The challenge to police authority mounted by some triad members at the weekend must be taken seriously. It simply cannot be tolerated. But the high-profile reaction, including a vow to make triads pay the price for their actions, is interesting. It may, in part, reflect wider concerns that are troubling the force. A routine police inspection of a West Kowloon disco on Saturday night provided the spark for this week's events. A large group of suspected triad members confronted the officers. Others are alleged to have helped patrons slip through a back door. Both the triads and the police called for reinforcements. It was 30 minutes before the crowd dispersed and the officers were able to conduct their search. This was a clear challenge to the authority of the police. During the incident, officers were insulted and mocked by members of the group. No society can afford to allow its law enforcement officers to be treated with such contempt. Law and order would quickly collapse if conduct of this kind was allowed to go unpunished. A strong police reaction was therefore expected - and needed. Officers have conducted three nights of intensive raids on suspected triad-run premises in West Kowloon. Many arrests have been made. Strong words have accompanied this show of strength. Senior Superintendent Edward Leung Ka-ming spoke of a zero-tolerance policy towards triads. That policy should already be in place - although it is not so easy to make it work in practice. There has been a suggestion that triad bosses have privately apologised to the police for the behaviour of lower ranking members last Saturday. This hints at a rather cosy relationship between the two sides that is difficult to reconcile with zero tolerance. The raids will not, by themselves, make too much of a dent in the activities of triad gangs, which include drug dealing, protection rackets, smuggling and prostitution. They form part of a broader police strategy intended to remove sources of triad income. But the key to cracking the triads is to net the big fish. And they are notoriously difficult to catch. The raids will, however, serve an important public relations purpose. The message they convey is not just intended for the triads. The defiant stand of the police, it is hoped, will help boost confidence in the force. The run-in with the triads comes at a time when police officers are worried about a lack of respect for authority generally - and especially among the young. Policing has become more difficult in recent years. People now complain more frequently about police conduct and frontline officers often come in for verbal or physical abuse from the public. These problems have been faced by police forces around the world. They call for a more modern and sophisticated approach to policing. The force in Hong Kong is still adapting. A training programme introduced in 2002, for example, teaches frontline officers how to be 'service providers' as well as law enforcers. Such methods are perhaps not required when dealing with hardened triads. But the talk of a war may also be a rallying cry for police officers at a time when morale is low, amid worries about manpower problems and possible cuts to benefits. The police have a difficult job to do. They deserve - and will no doubt receive - the community's support in any crackdown on the triads. But it will take more than tough words and high-profile raids to win the war against organised crime.