Hong Kong police warn officers 'might have to kill someone' as violence escalates

Sophia Yan
A pro-democracy protester throws a police teargas cartridge back at officers on September 15 - Getty Images AsiaPac

Hong Kong police warned on Friday that violence in the territory had escalated to a point where officers feared “they might have to kill someone”, as anti-government protests entered their sixteenth consecutive weekend. 

Violence has risen steadily since the mass demonstrations kicked off in early June. Protests now regularly descend into chaos with activists throwing bricks and petrol bombs at police officers who fire water cannon and tear gas. Conflicts have also erupted between protesters and pro-Beijing supporters, affecting tourists and bystanders.

Concern is increasing significantly among the city’s police force – once dubbed Asia’s finest – that officers will need to use lethal force to defend themselves or others. 

Violence has gotten “to such a level, [the officers’] greatest fear is that they might have to kill someone or that they might be killed themselves – it is really that critical,” a top police commander told a group of foreign media on condition of anonymity. “We have been so restrained in the face of such violence; this pressure has become extremely dangerous.“

“I haven’t seen this kind of widespread lawlessness in the whole of my career,” the commander said. “We are getting more and more worried about the possibility of death.”

In recent weeks, police officers have pulled their guns and fired warning shots into the air during chaotic clashes with protesters. Senior police officers have said that their threshold to draw a weapon is if an officer feels his or her life is in danger.

Protests first broke out over an extradition bill that would have sent suspects to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party control of the courts leads to a 99.9 per cent conviction rate. 

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam pledged a few weeks ago to formally withdraw the proposal, though activist demands have widened in nearly four months of unrest to include direct leadership elections, and an independent investigation into police handling of the protests.

Ms Lam hasn’t agreed to further concessions, but will begin a series of public meetings next week in efforts to resolve the situation.

Police say that an independent inquiry now would frustrate their efforts to handle the protests. 

“We are still in the middle of a crisis,” said the senior commander. “You really have to be sure that whatever measure you take now is helpful to the resolution of the situation, that you are not playing into the hands of people whose only objective is to undermine the police so this situation could get worse.”

So far, police have arrested 1,474 people, aged 12 to 84, since street violence began in June. Of those, 207 people have been charged. 

A number of cases are ready to go to trial, and some are starting to have their first hearings, the senior commander said, suggesting that city courts could fast track court dates and grant less bail to support broader efforts to quell the violence. 

“I can’t tell you how we’re going to stop this without all the other institutions all playing their part,” he said. “We have always been relying on that deterrent sentence that comes at the very end of the process.”