New police division for Hong Kong mass protests sparks fears community relations will worsen
Pro-Beijing lawmaker praises unit as helping make evidence collection more professional, but pan-democrats worry about political oppression
A new police division set up under Hong Kong’s organised crime bureau in the wake of mass protests and rallies has sparked consternation from lawmakers and activists who claim community relations and official practices will worsen.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu on Sunday revealed the new team was prompted by lessons learned from investigating the Mong Kok riot last year.
“Experience in areas such as evidence collection, which the new team will make use of, is important for investigating organised actions and relevant cases,” he said.
The riot broke out on the first night of Lunar New Year last year and lasted more than 10 hours. In total, 91 people were arrested, with seven found guilty of rioting.
The new unit, coded D Division, started “partial operation” on July 1 under the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau, a police spokesman said, adding it was created in view of “the global trend of terrorism” and the force’s “experience in tackling massive disasters and cross-district public events”.
Adding to the force’s existing three teams handling cases encompassing car thefts, human-trafficking, firearms possession and money laundering, the new division is responsible for investigation and law enforcement against terrorist attacks and criminal activities caused by public events and disasters.
D Division consists of four squads and is led by one superintendent, two chief inspectors and four senior inspectors, the spokesman said.
Some members of the Legislative Council’s security panel agreed that the new team was formed in response to various confrontations triggered by large-scale protests the city had seen in recent years.
But their views diverged as to its justifications and possible implications.
Legco’s security panel chairman Gary Chan Hak-kan said a specialised task force would make evidence collection “more professional”.
“Having more video clips documented as evidence would increase the chance of courts accepting such footage,” the pro-establishment lawmaker claimed.
But Lam Cheuk-ting, a pan-democratic member of the panel, expressed scepticism.
“Hongkongers who take part in demonstrations have generally been behaving peacefully,” he said. “The court has so far handed out punishments deterring those who have been found guilty of breaking the law during protests.”
Lam believed the elite team’s creation reflected the heightened significance attached to the phenomena of mass protests and rallies as well as the “fairly high pressure” the force had come under to deal with public order.
Lam was also concerned relations between the public and the force would deteriorate further.
“The message seems quite clear that the new team is a way for police to keep a close eye on protesters from now on.”
Democrat James To Kun-sun, the panel’s vice-chairman, said he feared large-scale assemblies would be unfairly singled out as hotbeds of violence and crime. He claimed that if the new team deepened infiltration of social groups and political monitoring, it might provide government and the pro-establishment camp more ammunition to suppress opponents.
“The police might collect private data that is scandalous yet not criminal,” he said. “No one can guarantee that this type of sensitive information wouldn’t be abused for political purposes.”
However, Chan dismissed concerns that individual rights would be adversely affected and social movements stigmatised, saying the team would not be mobilised for peaceful protests.
Andrew Shum Wai-nam, co-founder of the Civil Human Rights Observer, described its concerns as focused on whether the force would handle all public protest cases impartially, regardless of participants’ political backgrounds.
Shum’s group has been monitoring the expansion and use of police power since its establishment after the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
“If the new team would also follow up on cases that might threaten the safety of social activists, if they’ve been robbed, followed or intimidated, for example, we would then consider it acceptable,” Shum said.