Our police force is a prickly force. Officers, particularly junior officers, are quick to take offence at any perceived slight. The dignity of the force, at least for some of its members, requires that it should be beyond criticism.

When the Chief Secretary offered an apology for deficiencies in the response to the Yuen Long white shirt riot, some officers promptly took to social media to disown the apology.

Ours is also a paramilitary force, eager at parades to decorate itself with swords, bayonets and other accessories of no immediate relevance (we hope) to police activity.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

This enthusiasm for matters military might, or might not, be accompanied by a willingness to recognise that, as Clausewitz put it, warfare is conducted in an environment of uncertainty, danger and exertion, and to endure these privations accordingly.

Well, in law-abiding places with functioning police forces people do not expect to find mobs of men storming tube trains and beating their occupants indiscriminately. So let us, without getting into the politics of the matter, look at the events of July 21 and ask ourselves whether the taxpayers have a right to be disappointed.

As it happens this particular happening has already given birth to a Wikipedia page, from which I have taken the following account:

“At around 10:30 pm, about a hundred white-shirted assailants appeared at Yuen Long railway station and attacked commuters in the concourse indiscriminately, on the platform and inside train compartments. Two police officers arrived at 10:52pm. However, they left the station as they judged that they were outnumbered by the assailants and did not have sufficient gear, according to the police. Thirty police officers arrived at the station at 11:20pm, but the assailants had left.”

I have removed from that account five footnotes indicating that it relies on media reports, citing items from the BBC, Economic Journal and SCMP. We shall also for the purposes of this exercise disregard the fact that the “white-shirted assailants” had been reported attacking people in the street at about 10pm, so the Yuen Long cops should have been aware by 10:30pm that their services were likely to be required.

Two police officers leave Yuen Long MTR station during the attacks. Photo: online video.

First of all, we may be surprised by the timing. First attacks at “around 10:30pm”, two officers arrive at 10:52pm, reinforcements at 11:20pm.

This may be compared with the response time for 999 calls enunciated by the police force’s Operations Wing on the police website. The performance pledge is, in the urban area, that genuine 999 calls will produce a police person at the scene in nine minutes in Hong Kong and Kowloon, 15 minutes in the New Territories.

Yuen Long is in the New Territories, but there is no reason to concede the rural rate for things which happen in Yuen Long itself. It is a large town with its own police station. Clearly, the relevant standard here is nine minutes so those victims of the assailants who thought they were ill-served by the arrival of two officers at 10:52pm may have had a point.

In practice, however, few victims will have been aware of this distressing result because having come and seen the officers did not conquer. They retired to a safe distance, radioed for reinforcements, and waited in a safe place.

The arrival of said reinforcements took a further 28 minutes. And by the time they arrived the assailants, having had the run of the station for about 50 minutes, had left.

Photo: HKFP.

This is, I think an outcome which we are entitled to find disappointing. If you have a fire in a built-up area (which includes Yuen Long) the Fire Brigade aims to be with you in six minutes, and achieves this in more than 90 percent of cases, it says on its web page. The ambulance people aim for a slightly more modest 12 minutes, and have a similar success rate.

In the light of this, it could be considered a bit shocking that if you are attacked by a mob of gangsters in a Hong Kong town centre you should apparently expect to be left to your own devices for nearly an hour.

This brings us to a question which I approach with some reluctance, which is whether it was really an adequate response to the situation for the first two officers who arrived to call for help and retire from the scene to await its arrival.

I do not share the suspicion that they were happy to leave their friends in the local underworld to get on with it. Clearly, the situation was intimidating. One might, rationalising what might unkindly be characterised as flight, say that there was nothing two officers on their own could do against a crowd.

Our police do not, alas, enjoy the sort of relationship with the public which famously allowed one policeman on a white horse to clear thousands of people from the Wembley pitch before the 1923 FA Cup final.

If we were talking about a couple of lay people who walked into the station, saw what was happening and walked out again we would say that they used their heads and had no conflicting duty to help anyone.

Police Tactical Unit officers beat protesters in Yuen Long MTR station on July 27. Photo: HKFP.

On the other hand one might also say that the victims were in serious danger and needed help. Police people face situations of this kind with some advantages: they are fit young adults, trained in relevant martial arts and armed with guns.

Under the circumstances there was it seems to me clearly a duty to do something more constructive than mere self-preservation. An organisation which aspires to military airs and graces needs to aspire also to the military virtues, which include a willingness for self-sacrifice, to volunteer for danger and hardship in defence of the helpless and innocent.

Without this saving grace the soldier is difficult to distinguish from a bully.

I have never been a subscriber to the “Asia’s finest” notion, because this is a mislaid metaphor. The label of “New York’s finest” was short for “New York’s finest men.” The comparison was with civilians, not with other police forces. No doubt the “men” bit became an embarrassment when lady cops appeared.

I also feel a twitch of unease over the “finest” part because for people of my vintage it recalls the days long ago when the Hong Kong police were known as “the finest force that money can buy.”

The convenient thing about “Hong Kong’s finest” is that it leaves us room for another noun. Hong Kong’s finest gazelles?


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.