Hong Kong police on Tuesday started issuing extendable batons to off-duty officers, sparking concern from rights groups about the potential for abuse of force.

In an internal memo leaked online, the force said it gave “blanket approval” for officers to be issued batons “for the purpose of executing constabulary duties whilst off duty.” The decision was also meant to tie in with the needs of an operation targeting violent protesters, codenamed Operation TIDERIDER.

extendible baton police
An extendable baton.

Extendable batons “with special markings” were ready for distribution on Tuesday, according to the memo. HK01 reported that 10,000 batons had been purchased by police.

The decision was authorised by the Assistance Commissioner of Police (Support) Rebecca Lam and will be reviewed after one month.

The police memo also noted that the use of batons – both on and off duty – is regarded as a “use of force” under the Police General Orders, and officers “shall display self-discipline and exercise a high degree of restraint” when dealing with the public.

extendible baton police
The leaked police memo on issuing extendable batons to off-duty officers. Photo: online.

“[Officers] shall not resort to the use of force unless such action is strictly necessary and he is otherwise unable to effect the lawful purpose,” the memo read, adding that officers should identify themselves, give a warning and allow people to comply with police orders before using force.

Icarus Wong from the Civil Rights Observer – a group that monitors policing – told HKFP that he was concerned about whether off-duty police would use the batons correctly and with restraint.

Icarus Wong
Civil Rights Observer co-founder Icarus Wong. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“When the police force delegate this power to frontline officers, it has a responsibility to ensure that the usage is appropriate, for example that the officers would need to declare their identity and show their warrant card,” Wong said. “You can imagine, if there is an off-duty police officer, with no warrant card or identification number, who attacks citizens with their baton. It would be impossible to hold them accountable.”

Unlike on-duty officers who can be identified by their deployment, off-duty officers may go anywhere without approval from their superiors, making them hard to trace, Wong said.

police press conference Aug 12
Deputy police commissioner Tang Ping-keung. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The memo stated that police are required to maintain a “designated register” for record-keeping, and that an off-duty officer who used the baton must report to their immediate supervisor and Regional Command and Control Centre.

However, Wong said that the public – over the past few months – have lost trust over whether the police can regulate themselves.

“If their internal tracking and monitoring are bad, then there will be no trace. Using a firearm will leave a trace… but once you finish using a baton and choose not to report it, there won’t be any trace,” he added.

august 10 tsim sha tsui nathan road china extradition
File photo: May James/HKFP.

Wong said there were also questions about the specific circumstances that batons would be used – whether off-duty officers are expected to be summoned as reinforcements for a police operation, or if batons were just meant for personal defence.

HKFP has contacted the police for comment.

On August 6, student leader Keith Fong from the Hong Kong Baptist University was arrested by five off-duty police officers, after he was seen buying laser pointers in Sham Shui Po.

Keith Fong
Keith Fong. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Fong later said that an officer showed what appeared to be a warrant card when accosting him, but that card did not show the officer’s face. Fong also accused the police of mistreating him – including an officer putting his hand on his neck – during the arrest.

The police move comes as protests enter their 14th week, sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill which would have allowed case-by-case fugitive transfers to China. Since June, large-scale peaceful protests have morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachment and alleged police brutality. Over 1,000 arrests have been made during the summer’s unrest.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.