Police close ranks in a time of change

ON Monday, amid the pageantry of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force's 150th anniversary guard of honour at City Hall - as polished heels snapped together and sunlight sparkled off the shine of bayonets and ceremonial swords - few would have bothered to contemplate the enormity of the challenge awaiting the territory's law enforcers.

When the Commissioner of Police, Li Kwan-ha, traipsed to Queen's Pier to greet the Governor, Chris Patten, to help celebrate this magnificent moment, it was almost incongruous to consider that, in a few years, all this regalia and order may have vanished.

However, inside the cosy, clustered police ranks, a revolution is unfolding.

In the past 18 months, every aspect of police life has been scrutinised and audited to determine the efficacy of management style and substance.

And it seems, at long last, that a progressive school of thinking is seeping into the upper hierarchy; a philosophy which says - perhaps unremarkably - that police should be patrollers and peace-keepers rather than pen-pushers, drivers and station guards.

But it is not a movement beyond being resisted.

Because, if it is considered reform should prevail over accustomed practice, some in the force have much to lose.

After decades of relative inertia, police are now very much in the midst of exorcising stability; of sacrificing orthodoxy for progress in a bid to take the force into the 21st century.

It is not change without reason; not scattergun, ill-directed alteration.

Nor is it a haphazard deckchair shift designed to deal, in a tokenistic way, with the transition to Chinese dominion in 1997.

But, moreover, coinciding symbolically with the police birthday, the reform agenda, now close to full bloom, is a systematic, all-pervasive influence which, if implemented, will seek to filter down through the ranks - not cascade over the conservative police personnel.

If it is pushed, not absorbed, change will cause more angst than benefit.

So where are the police now? While Monday's guard of honour stood, marched, piped and played as a singular entity, as if linked by a common bond, such unity does not appear to exist at Police Headquarters.

This is a watershed moment.

The elevation of Deputy Commissioner Eddie Hui Ki-on will be announced in the next few days.

His successiotunity to forge a new policing approach.

Much of this ethos is based on winning community trust.

Those close to Mr Hui, 50, see his promotion as pivotal point in the force's prospective transformation.

His character encapsulates positivism. He is not a ditherer.

Indeed, as a career criminal investigator, Mr Hui is a decisive, forthright manager. If he broadly supports the thrust of the reforms - many earmarked in a year-long investigation by private consultants Coopers and Lybrand - there will be great energy soon in the corridors of police power.

But the matter rests with government.

Coopers and Lybrand consultant Gary Garner, seconded to a force study team to help oversee the reforms, said many police wanted to move forward. Recently, he conducted a four-day workshop for 23 top-ranking officers in private-sector management techniques.

''What the police need to do,'' he said, ''is continue to deliver the quality of service in a more cost-effective, efficient way.

''On this, there is no question.

''It is quite clear the police have skills and they are analytical.

''But, in terms of studying and reviewing the organisation from the point of view of its effectiveness and performance, they can learn.

''We are really exposing them to a new way of thinking. It has been very positive.

''They have been interested and engaged in the debates and clearly recognise that society is changing - and they must change with it.

''In the end, we are trying to get them to transfer some of our knowledge of the force to them; to allow them to model their own techniques and particular experiences.'' Bureaucrats with their eyes more on purse-strings than the genuine interests of policing now grapple with more than 2,000 recommendations for change.

If approved, 2,900 extra police - on a cautious estimate - will be needed.

This will mean Hong Kong's six million people will be safeguarded by 30,000 sworn officers; not to mention 5,700 auxiliary troops and 6,000 civilian support staff.

The abundance of resources brings obvious benefits - such as a feeling of safety and well-being and the absence of communal fear - but, in reality, the territory's law enforcers want to do more.

Picture this: computerised police stations, some terminals with Chinese characters and bilingual functions; the moving of mass resources to the New Territories; guns for women - a greater role for women altogether - changing court routines so officers don't have to waste time waiting to give evidence; the rapid expansion of Interpol and a boost for commercial crime.

In addition, the identification of poor behaviour trends in complaints; giving greater support to victims and children and better supporting police who have debt problems.

Further, what about modifying the 51-hour, six-day week performed by so many officers.

Nothing is escaping the reformist zeal.

But there remains a tender, unaddressed underbelly: that is, the expatriate police officer.

Soon, despite Mr Li's recent re-affirmation of an existing localisation policyn of Mr Li, a wily, shy patriarch - much-maligned because of his inability to project a positive police image but subtly lauded for inroads in China on violent crime - will be widely acclaimed.

It will bring relief and it belatedly gives the force the oppor that only demands a majority of ranks above superintendent be local, one solitary overseas officer will be at the peak of police decision-making: those above senior assistant commissioner rank.

Then there is the disbandment of Special Branch in 1995.

The withdrawal of this last vestige of colonialism, the British ''spook'', is a major episode whose importance cannot be overstated.

All of this - plus an increase in the potential for civil unrest, community anxiety and the ever-present fear of sporadic cross-border crime - means a hefty challenge seems near.

''If men, and of course women, live decently, it is because discipline saves their very lives for them,'' said the Governor to police at a private function.

The majestic ceremony was truly worthy of such lofty words.

Indeed, the police participants behaved like their own lives - and collective pride - depended on their discipline.

Perhaps, to surmount the difficulty of change and transition, the force will need to demonstrate similar stoic qualities.

If not, ''Asia's Finest'' may seem as hollow as an advertising jingle.