Electronic tracking system set to help Hong Kong police counter detainees harm themselves in custody
- Measures introduced after second suicide in custody of local force within year
- Balance to be struck between better safety and maintaining privacy
Police have unveiled measures to counter self-harm while in detention as an inquest into the death of a rape suspect – the second suicide in Hong Kong custody within a year – drew to a close on Monday.
The measures would include an electronic tracking system to ensure officers properly checked detainees, an inadequacy exposed by the inquest into the death of Lam Wing-chun who hanged himself with a computer cable at Sau Mau Ping police station on May 11, 2017.
Officers on duty had failed on 17 occasions to check on Lam in the hours before his death, even though visits were recorded in a log book. Two later attributed their absence to illness, while a third said he had called out to Lam and received a satisfactory response.
Lam, a delivery man, was arrested on May 10, accused of raping and robbing a woman near Kowloon Bay MTR station two days earlier. He was found dead the next morning.
Lam was one of 145 people who either attempted self-harm or suicide in the past five years while detained at a police station. Four died.
Better security would be installed at the entrance to police station cells, said Kitty Chik Hsia-yu, superintendent of the police support branch, which took part in formulating the measures. Objects inside a cell would be fitted with cushioned layers.
“These measures will provide better safety for those in custody,” Chik said, leading a tour of the new system at Wan Chai police station last week.
Lam’s inquest was the second time in a year when inconsistent records had surfaced in a court proceeding over the death of a detainee at a police station.
In June, the same coroner, Ko Wai-hung, referred two officers for follow-up action after hearing they made false records concerning a man who hanged himself at North Point police station.
The jury at the time recommended an electronic system to log police officers.
Chik said a committee was set up in June last year, a month after Lam’s death, for police to review the existing mechanism.
They came up with a new electronic tracking system, e-cell check and alarm system, which were introduced at three of the city’s 33 police stations with detention cells in September. They were Wan Chai, Hung Hom and Sau Mau Ping.
Previously, officers on duty had to sign a log book only at the entrance of the detention area. The new automated system required them to tap their card outside the area, then again on receivers outside every occupied cell.
“It is going to be a more accurate and efficient tool to keep records,” Chik said, adding the system would send reminders to officers and produce instant records for supervisors to review.
During Lam’s inquest, closed-circuit television footage showed he had got hold of the cable he used to kill himself through the bars of his cell.
Chik said metal mesh had been fitted at cells at all police stations, which would be upgraded to fibreglass where possible.
While most police stations were expected to get the new tracking system by the end of 2019, there was no timeline for the cell revamps, Chik said. She added each station had different structural limitations.
The superintendent also said police were exploring the possibility of installing CCTV cameras inside cells, while being conscious of privacy concerns.
One police officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said the new system would be more efficient.
“It is good I don’t have to count the time myself any more,” he said, referring to the new alarm function.