‘Everyone Is Angry’: Police Aggression Fuels Hong Kong Protests

Iain Marlow and Blake Schmidt

(Bloomberg) -- A traffic cop rode his motorcycle into a crowd of demonstrators. A group of officers pepper-sprayed a woman in the face. Riot police slammed a Citigroup Inc. staffer to the ground.

This week saw a litany of alleged police abuses quickly go viral on social media. But only one of the officers involved was suspended -- with pay. And that was only the first publicly announced punishment of an officer in five months of unrest.

The incidents contributed to anger that sparked a week of unprecedented chaos in Hong Kong, where the lack of accountability for police abuses has become a key reason many protesters are hitting the streets. And while officers are facing increasingly violent demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails, bricks and even flaming arrows, fears are growing that police tactics -- and the lack of an independent agency with sufficient power to investigate the protests-- are actually making the violence worse.

“What we can see is a pattern of escalation whereby police tactics have functioned to radicalize the population,” said Clifford Stott, a member of the expert panel appointed by Hong Kong’s government to examine the city’s Independent Police Complaints Council.

“We know on a scientific level that these things escalate, polarize and entrench conflict,” said Stott, who is a policing expert at the U.K.’s Keele University and has advised forces around the world. “And what we would see, and what we would expect, is exactly what we’re beginning to see -- an increasingly forceful level of intervention by the police and then by the government.”

Bows, Arrows

The police have consistently defended officers, saying they are using appropriate force at a time of rising violence from protesters. That includes a traffic cop who shot a protester during a confrontation at a busy intersection during the morning commute on Monday.

“Many people point their fingers at the police and play the blame game, accusing us of provoking violence in universities and causing social unrest,” said John Tse, chief superintendent of the Police Public Relations Branch. “We have stressed repeatedly that police officers are in a reactive mode. If rioters did not commit dangerous and destructive acts, there is no reason for the police to respond with force.”

This week, demonstrators shocked the city by setting a man on fire after an argument, while others beat a truck driver trying to clear a roadblock. Overnight, a 70-year-old man died after being hit earlier in the week by a brick thrown in a street clash that police blamed on “rioters.” On Thursday, police said students shot arrows at officers, while the city’s justice secretary was injured on a trip to London after being surrounded by “a violent mob.”

Protesters have also set up flaming street barricades, vandalized subway stations, lobbed petrol bombs, and attacked police officers with metal pipes and wrenches.

“It’s unfair to just focus on the traffic cops -- what about the rioters who set an innocent bystander on fire?” said Regina Ip, a pro-establishment lawmaker. “They have been working extremely long hours for five months with very little support. I really object strongly to anyone who picks on our police.”

‘Gone Nuts’

Still, protesters say the police abuses are giving them renewed support among the general public. That was evident this week when police fired tear gas in the Central financial district at lunch time, causing office workers and bystanders to flee in thick clouds of fumes.

“Before, it’s mostly students on the streets, but now you can see professionals, lawyers,” said a man with the surname Chan, a 30-something professional who works in insurance who was at a protest in Central. “Everyone is angry about the violence.”

In one widely circulated incident, a trio of cops detained a Citibank employee in Central, who said he worked in a nearby office. They berated and swore at him in an increasingly angry exchange. The man, arguing against his arrest, eventually tried to flee and was tackled. He grabbed a baton and swung it as he went down, appearing to yell “Hong Kong people, resist!”

“The Hong Kong police have gone nuts,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “I can only expect things to get worse.”

Torture Allegations

As the protests have dragged on, the accusations have gradually piled up, with little sign that an investigation will be independent enough. While more than 4,000 protesters have been detained in the chaos and 600 have faced charges -- some carrying sentences of up to 10 years -- the traffic cop who drove his motorcycle into protesters was the first officer whose suspension was publicly announced.

A poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in October found 52% of respondents gave the police zero out of 10 when asked to rank how much they trusted the police, with nearly 70% supporting a large-scale reorganization of the force.

Hong Kong police tactics have also drawn harsh condemnation from U.S. and U.K. lawmakers, as well as the United Nations. An Amnesty International report alleged police beat up and even “tortured” detained protesters -- accusations the police denied. Police have also been criticized for the way they’ve handled probes into rape and sexual assault allegations by protesters.

Part of the problem is the IPCC, which is dominated by pro-government figures and doesn’t feature a single opposition or pro-democracy lawmaker. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said the council’s investigation into police conduct makes it unnecessary to have an independent inquiry as demanded by the protesters and supported by most of the public.

The IPCC endorsed 2,872 allegations against police, according to its 2017-2018 report, mostly for neglect of duty and misconduct. Just 7% were “substantiated” and none led to criminal proceedings, while 10 cases led to disciplinary review and 120 cases led to warnings.

Opposition lawmaker Lam Cheuk-Ting, a former investigator of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong, said the IPCC won’t suffice because “they don’t have legal power to investigate,” including the powers to summons, search and to force police to testify. He also echoed concerns of the UN Human Rights Committee, which criticized the IPCC in 2013 for a lack of independence.

IPCC Chairman Anthony Francis Neoh declined an interview request for this story.

‘Shortfall’ of Powers

Ip, the pro-establishment lawmaker, said there is police accountability in Hong Kong. She pointed to a case where seven officers were jailed for beating a pro-democracy activist during the 2014 Occupy Central protests.

That case was also a cautionary tale for the government. During the prosecution, some 33,000 current and former officers gathered in support of the accused officers, signaling the force’s support for the government wasn’t unconditional.

The government also appointed a panel to advise the government on the IPCC, which included the academic Stott. He later tweeted there was a “shortfall in IPCC powers, capacity, and independent investigative capability necessary to match the scale of events and the standards required of an international police watchdog operating in a society that values freedoms and rights.”

Ken Tsang, the man who was beaten during the Umbrella Movement, said the IPCC is “rubbish” and that he instead filed a claim in the court system.

“It’s just a way for police to refuse or control investigations of police,” Tsang said of the IPCC. “My case was nothing special compared to what protesters face today. These cops in black kick and punch and even shoot at old and young. And they’re not being charged with anything.”

--With assistance from Erin Roman, Foster Wong and Aaron Mc Nicholas.

To contact the reporters on this story: Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at imarlow1@bloomberg.net;Blake Schmidt in Hong Kong at bschmidt16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Daniel Ten Kate

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