Hong Kong protests: Police repeatedly broke their own rules during demonstrations, says 'Washington Post' investigation

The Washington Post

From the use of tear gas to rubber bullets and batons, policing experts from around the world say the force has consistently violated its own procedures

The Washington Post |

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Police in riot gear move through a cloud of smoke as they detain a protestor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.

As violence has escalated in Hong Kong over recent months, senior officials have repeatedly ruled out a full inquiry into increasingly aggressive police tactics toward pro-democracy demonstrators.

Independent scrutiny would be an “injustice” and a “tool for inciting hatred” against the force, commissioner Chris Tang said recently, echoing the refusal of Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed leader, to meet one of protesters’ key demands. A police spokesman emphasised that the force is adhering to “strict” guidelines in policing the protests, “benchmarked against international standards.”

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A review of more than 100 pages of police guidelines and training manuals obtained by The Washington Post details these protocols surrounding use of force. The guidelines, however, were often ignored by police, who have misused chemical agents and used excessive force against protesters not resisting, according to experts in policing who examined dozens of incidents in consultation with Post journalists and in comparison with the police protocols.

The contrast between the police tactics and the rules set down in the manuals - most of which have not been made public before - has potential importance in any resolution as protests spill into the new year.

Riot police officers deploy tear gas at the Kwai Fong MTR station in contravention of safety guidelines on tear gas use.
Photo: Felix Wong/SCMP

The Post reviewed a full version of the Hong Kong Police Force’s internal use-of-force guidelines, the Force Procedures Manual, verified by two police officers and two lawyers. The document forms part of the Police General Orders, the rules governing police conduct.

Most of the general orders are public, but Chapter 29 - which addresses the use of force - is not. These orders are mandatory, the document states, and “noncompliance will make an officer liable to disciplinary action.”

The Post’s database of 65 use-of-force incidents includes videos from reporters, local broadcast news outlets, student journalists and others between June and November. The incidents were chosen to encapsulate every crowd-control tool used by Hong Kong police, and to include police responses to peaceful and violent protests. The incidents were evenly spread between each month. The videos offer a snapshot of police behavior in responding to the unrest.

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The Post consulted nine policing experts from around the world, including Argentina, Israel, South Africa, Hong Kong, the United States and Britain, who analysed the videos against the force’s guidelines and international standards, specifically, the United Nations’ guidance on the use of less-than-lethal weapons published in August.

The experts, who each reviewed a different set of videos, said Hong Kong police went against their rules in about 70 per cent of the incidents reviewed. In 8 per cent of incidents, the experts said the use of force could be justified under police guidelines. The remaining incidents were not sufficiently clear to reach a conclusion.

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Tear gas

Police fired tear gas into an enclosed subway station. Tear gas has been used - about 16,000 rounds total - in every district in Hong Kong and in dense residential areas. International standards state that it should be used only in open areas with clear exit points. Tear gas can cause breathing difficulty, nausea, vomiting and other respiratory and digestive issues.

What the guidelines say

The Hong Kong police force’s Police Tactical Unit (PTU) has primarily been responding to the protests. The tactical unit’s training manual shows that police are aware of the risks. Tear gas “not only affects the target [but] can also spread to nearby and even relatively far-off places and people,” it says. “When using tear gas in business districts with densely packed offices, for example, the problem becomes more severe because of central air conditioning systems in offices and even [subway] ventilation fans in some places,” the manual adds, encouraging officers to use alternative dispersal methods.

Expert analysis

Lawrence Ho, an expert in the Hong Kong police force at the Education University of Hong Kong, said use of tear gas in enclosed spaces almost certainly violated guidelines and changed how the public viewed the police. Their actions “indiscriminately affected all passengers, [including] children, infants, elders and housewives,” he said.

Police response

In a news conference, a police spokesman justified the incident as a response to violent behavior from protesters. “Our consideration then was to stop the protesters’ radical behavior as soon as possible,” he added.

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Water cannon 

On Oct. 20, police used a water cannon to spray a blue-dyed solution that causes a stinging sensation on exposed skin. Water cannons were first used in August. Among the group in a video was Jeremy Tam, a pro-democracy lawmaker who arrived about 20 minutes prior. “We weren’t demonstrating, we didn’t yell any slogan or anything like that, [we had] no gear with us,” Tam said. He was briefly hospitalised and said he experienced a burning sensation for at least 24 hours.

What the guidelines say

In May, before the protests, Hong Kong’s security bureau said police would only consider deploying the cannons “in situations of widespread or significant public disorder” where there has been serious injury or loss of life, widespread destruction of property or the occupation of major roads. Police said they would provide warnings before using the cannons, and would only discharge water against “violent charging acts” and “will not target individuals.” Authorities have not detailed the operational guidelines of the water cannon or the chemical makeup of the solution inside, saying only that it is similar to pepper spray.

Expert analysis

Four experts who analysed separate incidents in which a water cannon was used along the same road that day all considered its use to violate the principles expressed by Hong Kong police. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician at Physicians for Human Rights, said the blue dye is “shaming and cruel” and should be banned. Michael Power, a South African public interest lawyer and director at ALT Advisory, said in this instance use of the water cannon “appears to violate the principles of necessity and proportionality and is thus unlawful, as the people standing on the sidewalk do not appear to pose any legitimate threat.”

Police response

Police apologised for inadvertently hitting the mosque but maintained that their operation was to disperse a “very dangerous” crowd.

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Pepper balls 

On Aug. 11, police shot pepper balls - nonlethal irritants - from close range at a group of protesters who were descending into the subway station. They then pulled some protesters onto the ground, beating them with batons and making arrests. Isa, an 18-year-old who gave only her first name for fear of retribution, said she was trying to return home via the subway when she encountered the police. “I felt I was being pulled down by them, and then they beat me up,” she said. “I was overpowered by them.”

What the guidelines say

A Hong Kong police officer familiar with the weapon said there are no restrictions on close-range use of the pepper-ball gun. The use-of-force guidelines say it should only be used when an officer encounters “defensive resistance” from a subject.

Expert analysis

Lucila Santos, program director at the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations who helped compile a report on less-than-lethal crowd-control weapons, was concerned that the incident occurred in an enclosed space, and with protesters on a descending escalator - increasing the “risk of serious, unnecessary injury.” Santos also pointed out that Hong Kong police guidelines say pepper balls can only be used when an officer is faced with defensive resistance, which she said was not occurring in this case, as the protesters appeared to be trying to leave. “The police actions show that it produces panic and chaos [and] looks disproportionate and unprofessional,” she said.

Police response

Police initially defended the use of force in this incident, but said they would review the case.

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Rubber bullets 

Veby Mega Indah, 39, an Indonesian journalist working for Suara Hong Kong News, was covering the protests on Sept. 29. Dressed in protective gear and a high-visibility vest, she was standing with other journalists on a footbridge, live-streaming, when riot police began to retreat down a staircase, away from protesters. One officer fired back toward the journalists. The projectile, thought to be a type of rubber bullet known as a baton round, shattered Veby’s protective goggles. She was blinded in her right eye. “I tried to keep recording, live-streaming, and then I fell down. I thought it was going to be my end,” she said in an interview. Veby and her lawyer have tried to obtain the name of the officer who fired at her, to move forward with legal action, but have been rebuffed.

What the guidelines say

The tactical unit’s training manual states that projectiles should be aimed at the center of someone’s body, a “less lethal target zone,” rather than head, neck or throat. The use-of-force guidelines say projectiles such as baton rounds should only be used when a subject physically assaults an officer.

Expert analysis

Power, the South African public interest lawyer and director at ALT Advisory, reviewed four videos of the event. He said the incident was not clearly visible from the footage, but “there does not appear to be any justifiable reason for the discharge,” and he believes it is unlikely that the use of force was within police guidelines. In one of the videos, “the discharge appears arbitrary and it may be unlawful as it was seemingly aimed as the head, face or neck of the target,” Power said.

Police response

A police spokesman said after the incident that officers had no intention of hurting a reporter and could not provide further comments. 

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On Sept. 29, police were deployed to arrest protesters participating in what they say was an illegal assembly. Demonstrators were occupying roads and building barricades to thwart a police charge. Some protesters were throwing petrol bombs at police, and others were charging at them with umbrellas. Video shows a young demonstrator surrounded by at least four riot police. One of the police officers is repeatedly hitting the protester in the legs, while another police officer presses the protester’s head and neck to the ground. The protester, who tries to scream his name out to journalists recording the event, is briefly obscured from view by police shields.

What the guidelines say

The tactical unit’s manual states that police using their batons should “never strike the head, neck or back” and “never strike targets who are leaving, turn their backs on officers or are prostrate on the ground.” Officers should “only strike muscles” and “never strike bone,” it adds. According to use-of-force guidelines, an officer must report to senior commanders if the officer has hit someone with a baton, either intentionally or accidentally. Guidelines add that only “minimum force necessary” may be used and must “cease” once the officer’s purpose is achieved.

Expert analysis

Edward Maguire, an expert on protest policing at Arizona State University, said a video he watched is missing “important context” including what could have warranted the arrest. However, he added, “the level of force used against him appears excessive, particularly the officers striking him with a baton.”

“This reminds me of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles in 1992,” he said. “The level of force used here appears to violate the HKPF Policy Manual’s provision that only the minimum force necessary to achieve the purpose may be used.”

Police response

A Hong Kong police spokesman did not respond to questions on this specific video, but he said “in general, many media and online reports use short and edited videos that are taken out of context and fail to show the full picture of how radical protesters’ use of extreme violence” necessitated a police response. Police officers, they added, need to “obtain swift and full compliance” of an arrested person to guarantee their safety.

Pepper spray

The incident on Oct. 31 shows one of several videos in which pepper spray - known in police documents as Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) foam - was used against people walking away from police.

What the guidelines say

Chapter 29 of the police procedures states that OC foam can be considered for use against a person “involved or likely to become involved in violent” behavior. Guidelines also state that anyone affected by the foam should be given fresh air and “large amounts of water” to “prevent undue injury and suffering.”

“We were taught not to use tear gas or pepper spray if there is a peaceful protest, unless a protester is resisting during arrest,” said a 27-year-old front-line officer. “Everything has changed now, as you can see.” Senior commanders were less stringent about documenting use of pepper spray compared with tear gas, rubber bullets or other projectiles, he said, leading to its abuse as a crowd-control tool.

Expert analysis

Neil Jarman, chairman of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ panel on freedom of peaceful assembly and the expert who reviewed a video, noted that the person hit with pepper spray was both “peaceful and moving away from the police.” The instance, he added, appears to be “disproportionate and excessive,” exacerbated by the fact that officers in uniform “do not have any visible form of identification and therefore can act with impunity.”

Police response

A Hong Kong police spokesman did not respond to questions about a pepper spray video, but said “in general, many media and online reports use short and edited videos that are taken out of context and fail to show the full picture of how radical protesters’ use of extreme violence” necessitated a police response. Use of force, police say, is a “last resort” and used “only to achieve a specific purpose.”

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Early on Nov. 11, protesters began obstructing roads and disrupting train service as part of a general strike. The incident, in the Sai Wan Ho neighborhood, shows a police officer walking across the road toward a group of masked protesters. The officer pulls his weapon and grabs one of the masked men, then begins to walk backward while holding the man close to his body. As he retreats, another masked man dressed in black approaches the officer and swats at the officer’s gun. The officer fires, hitting the man in black, later identified as 21-year-old Chow Pak-kwan. The officer fires two more rounds as two others rush toward him. During a news conference, Chow said he thought he might die, and felt blessed to have survived. Quoting a line from the movie “V for Vendetta,” he added: “A man can be shot dead, but ideas are bulletproof.”

What the guidelines say

The Hong Kong police use-of-force guidelines were altered in September, allowing officers to use deadly force if they encounter “assault leading to, or relatively likely to lead to, the death or serious bodily injury” of others. In addition, Chapter 29 states that police officers can discharge firearms to facilitate the arrest of someone who they think has committed “a serious and violent crime,” or to “quell a riot” - but only if “no lesser degree of force can achieve the purpose.”

Expert analysis

The University of Surrey’s Hamilton said the guidelines allow for arguments both ways. Though Chow was not engaged in a deadly force assault, officers - who appear to be isolated in the video - could argue that they felt threatened by the crowd around them more broadly, or that they were suppressing a riot. “The Hong Kong policies are much more subjective than others, such that the officers’ perceptions at the time might be dispositive, even if unreasonable,” Hamilton said. Hyeyoung Lim, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who also reviewed the video, said the use of force was unjustified. “Even if I assume something happened prior to the scene that may raise the officer’s adrenaline level, it is obvious that the officer failed to control his feelings,” she said.

Police response

At a news conference Nov. 11, police said the officer “believed it was very likely that the revolver would be snatched and the consequences would be disastrous,” including “death and casualties.” An initial investigation, a police spokesman said, showed that the officer did not deviate from guidelines, as he thought he was facing a group rather than an individual. The police added that “We certainly believe our officers did not have bad intentions to hurt anyone,” and that the department would investigate the case “in depth.”