It is fortunate that gross oratorical overkill is not a criminal offence, because it seems to have become a habit among our local police officers. The prize for the finest specimen must go to the Police Inspectors’ Association for their response to the first protest around the police HQ, which included this gem:

“This sword of extreme humiliation has already stabbed to the heart of every colleague, and each of us are grieved and heartbroken.” The association conceded that nobody had actually been injured. Inspectors, it seems, have sensitive feelings.

I would like to make it clear at this point that I have no personal quarrel with our police force, which in its dealings with me has always been polite, friendly, legal and even hospitable. On the one occasion when I thought I might need their help they were touchingly eager to provide it.

police extradition june 21

Any consideration of police matters in Hong Kong has to start from the point that our police people are wonderful, most of the time.

On the other hand (I have written this before) I have some doubts about the force’s insistence that it is a paramilitary organisation, and the resulting approach to public order problems.

It is not true that, as Mr Li Fei said the other day, protests in Hong Kong always descend into violence. Quite the contrary. Whatever you think about the claims for their size Hong Kong people manage to hold very large protests which are extremely orderly, even to the extent of clearing up the resulting litter afterwards.

On the other hand, the events of June 12 were not the first time that a good deal of violence has occurred, and so much of it came from the police that the force was ordered to lay off the streets for a while. So you have to wonder: is the Star Wars gear a good look?

The desirability of a police force which sees itself in paramilitary terms is an on-going controversy. Some European countries have a separate paramilitary force, like the CRS in France or the Carabinieri in Italy. Others have special units in an otherwise ostentatiously civilian force, like the UK and Ireland.

The US has multiple police forces and policies vary. On the whole, the paramilitary model is in bad odour there, not so much because of public order problems as because of the use of SWAT-type teams to conduct what they call “no-knock entries”: swift drug raids in the hope that a sufficiently brusque approach will prevent miscreants from flushing the evidence. In a country awash with guns this often produces dangerous situations.

China extradition protest admiralty clash
Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

Let us, though, start with a view of the paramilitary approach to public order problems from an American policeman, Mr Norman Stamper. His thoughts on the subject start with an arresting intro (sorry): “As Seattle police chief in 1999, my disastrous response to the WTO protests should have been a cautionary tale. Yet our police forces have only become more militarized…”

“The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of colour will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day…”

This is in an admirably brief version of the case against paramilitary policing: that it turns the police force into a separate tribe whose primary loyalty is to itself, that it results in an inappropriate approach to civilian protestors, and that this will eventually infect policing in general because of its effect on the way police perceive themselves and are perceived by other people.

Similar criticisms at book length can be found in a book by Tony Jefferson called “The case against paramilitary policing”. I cannot recommend this. It has compelling practical examples from the UK and Australia, but also a lot of post-modern Cultural Studies BS about hegemonic ideologies and such like.

Not all academics working in the area agree with Mr Jefferson. But plenty of them have come to similar conclusions.

Gillham and Marx, who studied the disorders in Ferguson, in the US, concluded that “Although increasing militarization provides protective equipment for police and superior force to potentially deter violent assaults against police or others, it can also reinforce feelings of fear and anger and the view that police are an occupying army rather than a public force that protects and serves its community. First Amendment [media] activities may be chilled, already damaged relations may be worsened, and police further delegitimized.”

Perry and others surveyed protestors who had participated in the “Occupy” movement in Israel in 2012, and found that “the perceived use of paramilitary methods has an independent and negative effect on trust, stronger than that of police effectiveness and the “neutrality” component of procedural justice. In‐depth interviews suggest that the significance of paramilitarism may be the … alienation and criminalization it elicits among protesters who generally perceive themselves as law‐abiding citizens.”

Extradition protest
Anti-extradition protest on Wednesday, June 12. Photo: Dan Garrett.

McCulloch studied policing in the State of Victoria, in Australia: “The research demonstrates that the Special Operations Group has been the harbinger of more military styles of policing involving high levels of confrontation, more lethal weapons and a greater range of weapons and more frequent recourse to deadly force…

“…the way public demonstrations and industrial disputes are viewed in police and security circles ensures that… counter terrorist tactics will be used to stifle dissent and protest. The move towards paramilitary policing is necessarily a move away from the police mandate to protect life, keep the peace and use only minimum force.”

Or here we have Cian Murphy on the situation in England and Ireland: “The effect of a squad system and quasi-military activity on police culture cannot be ignored. Police culture already suffers from machismo. Specialist paramilitary police sub-culture exacerbates this… The military model fosters the ‘we-them’ attitude, acts as a barrier to community relations, and promotes a warlike attitude.

“The effect is that these groups, generally deployed in hostile situations, view themselves as imposing peace, rather than fostering it. As one Brixtonian noted: ‘There’s a lot of boys, all psyched up…they want action’…

“Riot, it would seem, is prompted time and time again by police action… Police are ill equipped to act like soldiers: they do not have the luxury of seeing rioters as enemies; their role is to diffuse violence situations, not to engage in them. ‘Tooling-up’ dehumanises the police, making it easier for protestors to reconcile themselves with acting violently towards officers of the law.

“The sub-culture Jefferson observed in Special Patrol Groups was not unlike that of a military platoon patrolling a colony.”

Does that not sound a tiny bit familiar?

China extradition protest admiralty clash
Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

This brings us to the currently interesting question of whether there should be some sort of inquiry into the events of June 12. Clearly, the intention of some people calling for this is that such an inquiry would identify and condemn incidents in which the police had used force inappropriately or illegally.

This is no doubt also the reason some people are against it. We need not take very seriously the objection that there was violence from protestors as well. The individual protestor is not a government department. His responsibility for his actions is personal and legal. The police force is an organ of the government; the powers and actions of those who are authorised to carry and use lethal weapons on our behalf are a legitimate subject for public curiosity.

The idea that such an inquiry would be prejudiced against the police is also far-fetched. Work of this kind is usually entrusted to a senior judge. If there is any bias it will not be in that direction.

The point that some people seem to have trouble with is that there is not much point in going in great detail into what happened. I have no doubt that any inquiry which does this will conclude that everyone concerned as either following the orders of a superior or exercising his discretion with the best intentions in the light of the equipment and training supplied and the doctrines established in the force.

On the other hand, it can hardly be disputed that the outcome of the whole affair was less than ideal, particularly from the point of view of those injured or arrested. The number of people who were both injured and arrested is a bit disturbing. I cannot help recalling the case of the English PC who, on being told that the person he had arrested was not a rioter, replied over the radio (forgetting, no doubt, that such conversations are routinely recorded) “Well he’s going to have to be guilty of something because I’ve broken one of his teeth.”

The question which first arose during the tear gas festival which kicked off Occupy, and has now become more urgent, is whether the paramilitary model as presently followed is appropriate and necessary for Hong Kong.

china extradition protest
Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Our police force has an unusual arrangement in that virtually all police people do the same special course at some point in their first three years in the force, and many of them do it again later. The course is an explicitly militaristic affair and would be an admirable preparation for the sort of riots which Hong Kong used to have in the 60s.

But having everyone do it means the military spirit pervades the force. Teamwork is a fine thing, but tribalism can be taken to excesses. It is noticeable that in none of the rare cases in which a police person is accused of using excessive or inappropriate force do we see a police person as a prosecution witness. Loyalty to colleagues trumps loyalty to the law.

Or indeed to anything else. The loyal toast “to the Queen” which used to be a part of formal regimental dinners had to be replaced after the handover. It was not replaced by a toast to the PRC or the SAR or their respective heads. The toast is now to “the Hong Kong Police Force”.

In defence of the current arrangements, it is argued that the police have to have their own anti-riot (or Internal Security, as the euphemism has it) arrangements because unlike their counterparts in larger political units they have no neighbours they can call on for reinforcements.

Unstated, but no doubt not unthought, is also the point that unlike their colonial predecessors they cannot call on the support of British troops. Nobody wants to see what the PLA’s version of crowd control would look like.

Still, I think the point that needs to be examined is whether the undoubted need can be met without wholesale recourse to a police model which is generally assessed as lying somewhere between perilous and toxic. Being paramilitary seems to be an article of faith. Consequently, no thought is given to the possibility of avoiding its less desirable features, still less to the attractions of changing to a civilian model and keeping pepper spray as a last resort.

China extradition protest
Photo: Mark Delecate/HKFP.

I suppose there is some discussion of these matters behind the scenes. It is noticeable that after the shock and awe approach has failed we see experiments with more soothing methods like negotiation and deploying lots of lady cops.

This debate should take place in public. Policing is too important to be left to police people.

It is also too important to be left to the officials nominally in charge. Their reactions to June 12 did not inspire confidence. The Secretary for Security’s answer to questions about police people not displaying numbers on their uniforms was that the Star Wars kit did not have room for a numberplate. This was both irrelevant and untrue.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the supposedly independent body which reviews the way complaints against the police are handled (the actual handling is done by the police themselves) said that they had not deployed observers for any of the recent protest marches or demonstrations because they were so big it would be impossible to see everything.

This is like the director of the Observatory deciding not to do typhoon warnings because typhoons are big and unpredictable. Not seeing everything is surely preferable to not seeing anything. Unless, of course, you do not wish to see anything…

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.