SCMP Friday, October 6, 2000

Force's summer of discontent


Every month, a representative of the Commissioner of Police, Eddie Hui Ki-on, sends out a confidential report to his most senior officers dealing with issues affecting the force's sagging morale. The "morale assessment" report is a tightly held document. Every page is stamped "confidential" and it is only circulated to about 80 of the top officers commanding the various units and districts across Hong Kong.
Among the issues dealt with in the report for August, which was released on September 14 and has been leaked to the South China Morning Post, was the handling of demonstrations, using language which university student leaders and right-of-abode-seekers consider inflammatory.
The arrest of five representatives of the Federation of Students last week over an April protest against tuition fees, which was held without permission being obtained in advance, has generated considerable public sympathy for the demonstrators and mounting opposition to the Public Order Ordinance.
It had been the second time five student representatives were apprehended by police in recent months over demonstrations - three of the students being arrested on both occasions.
The Government last night announced that it had decided not to prosecute the students for their actions in the tuition fees protest.
But the leaked report says a decision in August to make the initial set of arrests over a demonstration concerning the right of abode for mainland children outside the Central Government Offices on June 26 was "supported by all officers".
The only complaint voiced in the confidential police report is that even tougher action should have been considered. The report says "some officers" were worried because they believed the fact that the "trouble-makers" were not arrested more quickly showed a lack of support for front-line officers. Concern was also expressed about the "increasing hostility of protesters".
It says there is widespread appreciation for colleagues who "bear the brunt of policing these frequent and often unpleasant demonstrations".
But student leader Gloria Chang Wan-ki, one of the students arrested on both occasions, said the choice of words was "quite aggressive" especially since the protesters had tried to be conciliatory towards the police.
"I think their words and their comments are very misleading and they are very irresponsible," said Ms Chang, University of Hong Kong Student Union president. "Their interpretation of our actions is not correct. Our protests are not targeted to make any trouble with the front-line policemen. We have negotiations with police and we try to have a dialogue with them to minimise any problems".
The spate of protests held over Hong Kong's summer of discontent is said to have poisoned police morale. Senior government officials and top police officers say legislators are damaging the confidence of rank-and-file police with their criticism of tactics used against protesters. They point to a fiery meeting of the Legislative Council's Security Panel on June 30 when legislators lambasted Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Senior Assistant Police Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai over police use of pepper spray at a demonstration, and alleged excessive use of force.
Legislators denied the accusation. Chairman of the Security Panel in the last council, James To Kun-sun, said his colleagues were not tough enough. "As chairman I would say my forum members are too kind to the police."
Mr To, a Democrat, warned the Government it could face a backlash if it sought to blame legislators for low police morale. "If the Government wants to take this incident as a matter of Legco not supporting the police, that would be another blow for me . . . I think there is no possibility of co-operation any more."
Emily Lau Wai-hing, of the Frontier party, said she had asked senior police officers if they felt legislators were harming morale. "They say they don't receive support from top management. They say some police officers, especially the front line, are targeted by management as scapegoats if something goes wrong. There is agreement that morale is very bad but that has nothing to do with criticism from legislators or the trouble-makers." Ms Lau said the wording of the morale report's section on demonstrations was "inflammatory" and likely to further harm relations between police and protesters.
She said legislators had a duty to criticise police if there were problems. "We don't feel we are doing this in a destructive way. We do not set out to deliberately harm morale."
Other issues canvassed in the report include a negative reaction to a ban on officers visiting one-woman brothels, which are not illegal in Hong Kong. Officers were warned in an internal circular issued in July not to visit prostitutes. Police should not engage in immoral activities and officers caught would face disciplinary action, they were told.
The circular was issued after a sergeant was lured into a "honey trap" in July. He was approached by a 29-year-old mainland woman in Tsuen Wan and agreed to pay $250 for sex. When they went to a room, a 61-year-old man appeared, accused the officer of sexually assaulting the woman and demanded $500,000 in compensation. The pair were arrested when they allegedly went to collect the cash at a meeting point and were charged with blackmail.
In another incident, two constables from the Police Tactical Unit went to a flat in May occupied by a 35-year-old Thai prostitute, ostensibly to check her identity card. She later lodged a complaint alleging the officers touched her breasts. One of them was subsequently charged and convicted at the Fanling magistrates court on September 20, and sentenced to seven weeks in prison. He has lodged an appeal and is on bail.
The leaked report on morale said that while the reminder not to visit prostitutes received general support, there were some reservations about being barred from an activity which is not illegal. "It is felt that the public has a right to expect high moral standards from law enforcement officers who are required to take action against vice activities," it said. "However, some officers consider the directive as a possible infringement of normal freedom as the activity in itself is not illegal: the matter being a moral issue for the individual to decide."
The report said police were ordered not to take part in any activities which could interfere with their impartiality. "Common sense dictates that if the general public were to become aware of an officer patronising one-woman brothels and/or associating with prostitutes other than in the course of his duty, they would form a bad impression of the force and its capability to effectively discharge its responsibility in combatting vice activities."
A police source familiar with vice operations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said many officers were disgruntled with the reminder, and believed a large number frequented such brothels. "There's a lot of that going on. There were a lot of officers when this ruling came out who asked, 'How can police headquarters make such a ruling, it's against the Bill of Rights? How can you say that an officer who was recently divorced and is in a high-pressure job should not be able to go to a one-woman brothel if it is not illegal?' "
But Junior Police Officers' Association chairman Lau Kam-wah said he did not think many officers frequented the one-woman brothels. "There are so many nightclubs in Hong Kong. There are so many nightclubs in Macau, and on the mainland, so they do not need to go to brothels in Hong Kong," he said.
The report also examined dissatisfaction among some officers over a proposal to wear name badges, a small cut in allowances for detectives, complaints about the contracting out of cleaning services at Sha Tin police station and concerns about the posting of Police Tactical Unit officers to the marine division.
The report carries a warning that it can only be given to officers at the rank of chief superintendent and above. Senior superintendents can only be shown the report and are allowed to note down "points of significance".
The source who supplied the report to the Post made it clear that a number of officers considered its limited distribution to be detrimental to the interests of the force as a whole. "There is no clear reason why such mundane information should be restricted to senior officers only," the source said.
The report was compiled in response to monthly reports into morale submitted by officers upwards in the chain of command which eventually reach Commissioner Eddie Hui . The memo was written by Chief Superintendent Leung Lau-on, of the staff relations and conditions of service branch, under the name of the commissioner.
Inspectors are briefed by superintendents on the messages from management contained in the morale reports and expected to pass them on to the rank and file. But the source said the problem with the system was that the messages often became distorted as they were passed on.
"This just shows the culture of secrecy throughout the force even though it is trying to tell the public that is becoming more open and transparent," the source said.
The leaking of the report is another sign pointing to the apparently low level of morale in the force. A leaked consultation paper in April blamed poor morale as a factor behind falling rates of crime detection. It said inspectors and some junior officers were suffering from overtime-allowance cuts, increasing workloads and fewer chances for promotion.
Also that month, the Post detailed a power battle brewing in police headquarters as ranks were divided over loyalties to Deputy Commissioner Tsang Yam-pui, brother of Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and Senior Assistant Commissioner Dick Lee as part of manoeuvrings over who would take over as commissioner when Mr Hui retires early next year.
Mr Tsang has emerged in the past few months as the heir-apparent, enjoying the support of senior officials locally even though some in Beijing's policy-making circles responsible for the SAR hold some reservations about two brothers wielding so much power.
Glenn Schloss ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.