Four major police unions are demanding a new law to criminalise behaviour insulting police officers, in light of the recent imprisonment of seven officers who assaulted activist Ken Tsang during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests.

It is not the first time the suggestion has been made: police supporters and pro-establishment figures pushed for the idea during the Occupy demonstrations.

police rally
Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

‘Deserve respect’

In a rare rally held at a police clubhouse on Wednesday, more then 38,000 union members and their relatives called for a law prohibiting people from insulting officers.

“We deserve dignity and respect. Let’s reclaim our dignity,” a speaker of the rally told the crowd. Some attendees wore stickers saying “Fight for justice and restore the rule of law.”

Junior Police Officers’ Association Chairman Joe Chan Cho-kwong said the purpose of the event was to reassert dignity for the force, as no one should hurl unreasonable insults at police officers. He said the unions will write to the chief executive to demand legislation against insulting police.

Chief executive hopeful Regina Ip was one of the pro-Beijing figures invited to the assembly. Some attendees cheered as she left the venue.

“It would be best to prevent the public from insulting police officers,” the former security chief told reporters. “Police are upset that people swear at them. I hope people will stop. Our public officers deserve respect and dignity.”

Ip Lau Suk yee
Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP

“As for the proposed law, it is a different matter. It is not easy to pass laws at the legislature. A better solution is to encourage the public to respect police officers.”

But pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung said the proposal was feasible. She said police officers asked her to convey their message to society that they want to criminalise insulting police, as it would help facilitate law enforcement.

“Speaking as a lawmaker and legal professional, if we can amend the law to offer more protection to officers so that they won’t be easily provoked, this will help prevent future cases like the seven cops incident,” she said.

Hours after the rally ended, the police wrote on their official Facebook page: “[The] force management is open to any new measures or legislation that would enhance the effectiveness of policing.”

‘Unnecessary, possibly unconstitutional’

Lawyer Kevin Yam of the Progressive Lawyers Group told HKFP that the discussion of criminalising contempt of police is worrying.

police rally
Police rally. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“Police already have a range of powers at their disposal to deal with anyone who is obstructing with the exercise of their functions,” he said, adding that existing laws such as common assault could be used against people who make threats against officers.

Yam said the proposed law could violate constitutional rights such as freedom of speech. He said that while the offence of contempt of court aims at protecting judicial independence – a pillar of the rule of law – “it is unclear how the [proposed] legislation has any deeper purpose beyond making police officers happy.”

“This is not a legal issue but a political issue – the only way you can deal with the issue of the dignity of police is by restoring public confidence in the way police exercise their powers,” he said.

“[The legislation] is unnecessary and provocative. It is going to make things worse, and possibly unconstitutional.”

‘New low’

Andrew Shum Wai-nam of the watchdog Civil Rights Observer also said that pushing for the criminalisation of insulting police would heighten public distrust in the force. He urged the government to consider the unions’ suggestion with great caution.

Hong Kong police during the Occupy protest.
Hong Kong police during the Occupy protest. Photo: HKFP.

“Right now the police-community relationship has sunk to a new low and is facing gridlock,” he said. “The public image of the police is also at a new low. Yesterday, many officers turned up for the rally to support the seven convicted officers – you can see they stood very firm.”

He said the pressing issue for the force management is to resolve the gridlock and restore public confidence in the police. “There is no justification for the management to continue shielding the convicted officers and to refuse to be answerable to the public,” Shum said.

“This will hurt their professional image. It will be no good to them.”

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.