There was a shooting in Hong Kong last Tuesday night. The victim turned out to be a schoolboy. The shooter was a policeman.

There is video. But we should not jump to conclusions. Different people, as a police spokesman pointed out the other day, see different things in the same video.

Anyway, Hong Kong is a city enjoying the Rule of Law. This means it behoves us, as concerned citizens, to bide our time and wait until the usual procedures have run their course.

Photo: Campus TV, HKUSU.

Those procedures comprise a careful and impartial investigation, followed by submission of findings of fact to lawyers, and the legal consequences which flow from the facts carefully and impartially discovered.

At this point we come to a major fly in the proverbial ointment. Generally we expect, in a society which enjoys the Rule of Law, that this careful and impartial investigation is conducted by our police force, who have the necessary skills and experience.

No doubt the police persons conducting such an investigation will strive manfully, if perhaps not with complete success, to suppress the thought that the suspect is a colleague and there, but for the Grace of God, could any police person have gone.

We need to feel confident that possible offences by police persons will be investigated with the same skill and diligence as similar offences committed by lay people.

It is difficult to maintain this level of confidence if the result of the careful and impartial investigation is announced before it has even begun.

Stephen Lo. Photo:

And this is what happened last Tuesday. The blood had not dried on the pavement when the police spokesman was assuring the assembled media that the shooting was justified because the shooter felt that he or someone else was in mortal danger.

In case we were still in any doubt, the Commissioner of Police followed up, while the victim was still in the operating theatre having a police bullet extracted from his lung, with the observation that the shooting was “reasonable and lawful”.

Where does that leave Concerned Citizen, who has carefully refrained from jumping to conclusions in the expectation that the police will diligently gather the relevant facts and pass them to the lawyers, who will decide their legal implications?

It leaves him, I fear, with the distinct impression that the police force, at least in its own view, is above the law, free to decide complex legal questions on the simple basis that Our Boys Can Do No Wrong.

We must try to be understanding about this. Shooting someone is a traumatic experience, at least the first time, for the shooter – though not, obviously, as traumatic as it is for the victim.

Rally at Tsuen Wan. Photo: Jimmy Lam @ USP United Social Press.

The shooter’s friends and colleagues will, as friendly and collegial people, try to cushion the shock with some such formulae as “You just did what you had to do”, “You followed the rules”, “Any of us would have done the same thing,” and in circles where colourful language is accepted, perhaps “The mother****er was asking for it.”

This is to be expected and accepted … in private. Both those offering these assurances and the recipient will be aware at some level that in the long run an investigation may not take the same view. This can be handled later.

It is also understandable that the police management feel the need to put their side of the story after complex and confused events spreading over wide areas of Hong Kong. The video – and these days there is always video – may well be misleading. The cameras focus on the photogenic.

But these two activities should not be confused. Where an individual case is concerned it is unacceptable for the police to anticipate their own investigation by announcing the result in advance.

We may hope that the shooting will still be investigated. But the person handed this tricky job will undertake it knowing that his superiors want a particular result. Producing the wrong outcome may well blight his or her prospects in the force.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Also the police tribe can be vengeful and vindictive against those who violate its code, as in different ways John MacLennan and Yacoub Khan discovered.

Yet we need a proper inquiry by someone who will not be putting his career on the line if the result does not coincide with the Force PR line or the Commissioner’s leap to judgement.

It appears that the shooter, or his employers, are abandoning in advance the idea that the shooting was an accident, and propose to rely on self-defence or the defence of someone else in mortal peril.

This is a well-ploughed legal field. The issue does not come up often, but when it does the defendant is often expensively lawyered at the expense of a police union. As a result, self-defence or necessity as a justification for lethal force have become one of those needles on which a thousand lawyers can dance.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

So we can hardly suppose that the hasty responses from the PR department or the Commissioner were based on a careful examination of factual evidence, still less a thoughtful consideration of its legal consequences.

I take no pleasure in pointing out that those responses have nevertheless done irreparable damage. Citizens who suspect that this particular shooting may have been unlawful will not be deflected from that view by swift unresearched assurances from police people who have an obvious stake in the matter. And as a result of those assurances they will have no faith in the results of whatever further investigation is undertaken.

One can only hope that the Force will bear in mind that if they actually manage to kill a schoolkid there will be an inquest, however happy they may be with their version of events.

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.