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Riot police push forward at an extradition bill protest in Mong Kok on July 7. Photo: Felix Wong

Exhausted, stressed and insulted: Hong Kong police officers soldier on through physical and emotional pain brought by extradition protests

  • Officers speak of immense pressure brought on by extradition protests. ‘Sometimes we think we can handle it,’ an inspector says
  • Some faced verbal abuse and violence from protesters – as well as cyberbullying and threats

When Ken’s wife asked him how he was holding up after repeatedly being deployed to recent extradition protests, the police sergeant always assured her: “Everything is fine.”

He thought he had succeeded in hiding his exhaustion – until the day he took a peek at his wife’s mobile phone. What he read brought him to tears.

“All along I told her I was fine, so she told her relatives the same thing,” said Ken, who asked to remain anonymous. “But she also told them she was very worried because she knew I was lying.”

Thousands of Hong Kong police officers – like Ken – have been subjected to immense physical and emotional stress from the wave of protests unleashed by the government’s unpopular extradition bill in the past weeks.

Like his colleagues, Ken faced verbal abuse and violence from protesters, especially when tensions ran hot and clashes broke out. The most common insult has been “black cop” in Cantonese.

The protests have been largely peaceful, but officers like Ken have put in long shifts that sometimes lasted more than 24 hours without a proper meal or rest.

Police officers at the junction of Nathan Road and Argyle Street on July 7. Photo: Dickson Lee

Health experts have already warned of a public mental health crisis, with four deaths and one attempted suicide already linked to the ongoing political fiasco.

Protesters often speak of a sense of despair and depression over recent events – but police officers have also felt the effects of the repeated clashes. Some police officers were the targets of a cyberbullying campaign that included the leaking of officers’ personal and family details as well as death threats.

Police condemns ‘thug’ protesters after clashes leave 22 injured

As Ken’s experience shows, it is sometimes trickier for police officers to deal with stress because they have been trained to act resilient. When police are constantly in operations mode, according to experts, asking them to completely loosen up is unrealistic.

Dr Edmond Lau Kam-lun, the senior clinical psychologist of the Hong Kong Police Force, said his psychological services group had been providing personalised assistance to help frontline officers cope with stress.

“In the middle of these operations, telling them to fully relax and vent out all their emotions is not the best way to deal with things,” Lau said.

Instead, his team of 12 experts has been offering an around-the-clock hotline service and have gone into the field to cheer up police officers and listen to their feelings.

Sometimes we think we can handle it – but then, is that possible?
Eric, a police inspector with three children

For those who have had intense experiences, such as clashes with protesters, Lau and his colleagues invited them to support groups.

The team has also been sending encouraging text messages and tips on how to manage stress to all staff members and their families.

Eric, a police inspector who has been involved in crowd-control operations, said the temptation for frontline officers was to ignore their stress because of their training.

Hong Kong leader vows not to tolerate violence by ‘thugs’ as she visits injured police

“Sometimes we think we can handle it,” Eric said. “But then, is that possible?”

The inspector, who also declined to use his real name, said he feared for his safety on June 12 when protesters began charging the Legislative Council with metal barricades, some throwing bricks.

He said tension had permeated the atmosphere before the clashes because the officers had no way to predict protesters’ next move.

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At home, the father of three has been paying extra attention to his children to make sure they were not affected – especially by the online bullying, including posts allegedly put up by teachers who claimed to treat police officers’ children less favourably than others as retribution for police conduct during the protests.

A tactic called doxxing, which involves posting the private data of police officers and their families online, has been widespread over the past weeks.

Lau said cyberbullying had added to the emotional stress of some officers, along with long working hours and negative sentiments from some members of Hong Kong society.
Police clash with protesters clashes after a march in Sheung Shui on Sunday. Photo: Felix Wong

The psychologist urged officers not to spend too much time on social media to avoid fatigue. He said this advice would help all people make rational decisions without being emotionally driven.

Since early June, police officers have been in conflict with protesters and journalists, with videos purporting to show protesters being beaten up – sometimes even after they were apprehended.

On July 8, the Hong Kong Journalists Association issued a statement condemning the police for assaulting reporters during a crowd clearance operation in Mong Kok the day before. On Sunday, more than a thousand journalists and their supporters attended a march against police violence.

The statement and the journalist march are more blows to the police’s relationship with the public.

‘More than 1,000’ join journalists’ march, accusing police of mistreating media

But Eric said he and his colleagues had throughout the turmoil exercised restraint and respected the rights of all individuals. He said they never wanted to take action unless they were charged. Eric attributed the friction with journalists to a misunderstanding.

His eyes saddened when he spoke of what he and his police colleagues consider their duty: to protect the peace and prosperity of Hong Kong.

“As clichéd as it sounds,” he said, “this has always been our intention.”

As for Ken, he looks on the bright side of things. He said the tension between the public and police flared up mostly during protests. When they returned to the police station, he said, the public still greeted the officers with gratitude.

“Just don’t treat us like we murdered your father or always make us the enemy,” Ken said.

“This is all I wish to say.”