The disturbing thing about the case of Mr Frankly Chu, the retired Police Superintendent now languishing in jail after being convicted of gratuitously hitting a non-offending passer-by with his baton (the polite name for a club in legal circles) three years ago, is that Mr Chu evidently still believes that he did nothing wrong.

Well in a way one would hope so. Mr Chu was a senior officer, not a young recruit who might be carried away in the heat of an exciting moment. Mr Chu plainly believes that his actions were warranted by police policy and rules at the time. A recent statement by the Junior Police Officers Association suggests that this view was widespread. Officers, one might unkindly summarise, are disconcerted to find that they are not allowed to beat law-abiding members of the public with impunity.

Frankly Chu King-wai was filmed hitting pedestrians with a baton.

The origins of this problem surfaced in a historical item a few weeks ago which revealed that the local police’s riot control course, a strenuous three-month affair, was inherited from the British Army and has been lovingly preserved by generations of instructors.

Actually this explains a lot. The British Army has not had a riot control function in mainland Britain for about a century. Troops were deployed in Wales during a mining strike in 1911. They saw no action and fired no shots, in anger or otherwise. The only fatality in the whole affair was caused by a police truncheon, the short version of the baton/club. After a serious riot in Glasgow in 1919, which the government of the day, spooked by Bolshevik uprisings in much of Europe, mistook for a revolution, troops were deployed. But by the time they arrived the riot was over and there were no further disorders to control.

Concerned by the dangers of an army taking over the country, parliament had legislated a system designed to ensure civilian control. A riot only became a riot, subject to military suppression, after the reading of a prescribed passage from the Riot Act. This was not decided by the senior officer present. It had to be read by a civilian magistrate.

However this history did not mean that the British Army had no experience of riot control to pass on to its Hong Kong police friends. It meant that the experience of riot control it passed on was all acquired in a colonial context.

In a colony the arrangements are very different. Policing is attempted, but it cannot depend on the voluntary submission of the local population to the rule of law. It depends on force. The local army commander is responsible for providing the necessary force if conventional policing is not sufficient.

Frankly Chu. File photo: Citizen News.

Consequently the approach to crowds for a colonial army is that any crowd is a large, unpredictable and dangerous animal, to be tamed and directed in the desired direction by the application of force. If necessary the force can be considerable. Individual members of the crowd have no rights. And this is still the approach which animates Hong Kong police training and doctrine.

The problem is not that our policemen are no good at riots. The problem is the absence of an intermediate stage in which a potentially unruly crowd is persuaded peacefully in a direction which is not too disruptive to the rest of society. The fundamental legal feature of a riot is that all the participants are criminals. The fundamental legal feature of a demonstration, even if the organisers are in violation of some regulation, is that the participants are still citizens who have legal and human rights.

Of course we do have thoughtful police people. During the disorders during the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference, held in Hong Kong in 2005, it was clear that much creativity had been devoted to defusing potentially violent situations, by for example delaying as long as possible the appearance of the full riot gear. This was quite successful, but seems to have been lost in the corporate memory, which is dominated by one occasion when a police cordon was breached, regarded as a great humiliation for the Force which is always with us.

File photo: In-Media.

So we are left, I fear, with a situation in which there is a serious discrepancy between police ideas of what is acceptable in public order situations and what is acceptable to the public. This is a serious matter because individual examples of this discrepancy have a disproportionate influence on public views of the rule of law generally and the police in particular.

We may all feel sorry for Mr Chu, an elderly gent spending his birthday, and Christmas, in prison, which one must suppose is a particularly inhospitable environment for retired policemen. But the thought of him and his colleagues turning up at public protests with a baton in one pocket and a gun in the other is a bit disturbing.

Repeated requests for the police to publish the internal guidelines which are supposed to lead police people in the paths of righteousness on these occasions have been refused. This is clearly a fit matter for public discussion and that discussion should be informed. What are you people hiding?

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.