Police have announced that frontline officers will wear white identification tags with “operational callsigns” which are unique to each officer, amid criticism of police hiding their identities.

“With an increasing number of doxxing cases, we need to find a balance between allowing the public to file complaints and protecting the privacy of police officers and their families,” Chief Superintendent John Tse said told reporters on Monday.

Police did not provide a clear timeline on when the policy will be fully implemented.

Tear gas outside Peninsula Hotel
Tear gas outside Peninsula Hotel. Photo: Studio Incendo.

When asked if officers should continue to mask their faces during operations at recent protests, Tse said that the measure was for protection and not for anonymity. There were ways to identify officers even if their face was masked, he claimed

Sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill, street protests in Hong Kong have evolved into a fully-fledged pro-democracy movement after 21 weeks.

Last week, 206 people, including 148 men and 58 women between 12 and 63 were arrested, on suspicion of unlawful assembly, possessing offensive weapons, possessing instrument fit for unlawful purposes, criminal damage, arson, assaulting police, and using mask at unlawful protests.

Police fired 199 tear gas canisters, 46 rubber bullets, 27 bean bag rounds and seven sponge grenades over the past week.

Pulling masks ‘unsatisfactory’

During Monday’s press event, police treatment of journalists once again came under scrutiny after officers were filmed pulling gas masks from journalists’ faces. Under the mask ban enacted earlier this month, police have the authority to remove face coverings of any individual to ascertain their identity.

rthk police gas mask
A police officer pulling the gas mask off the face of an RTHK journalist. Photo: Alvin Lum, via Twitter.

A reporter from public broadcaster RTHK and another reporter from Apple Daily were affected.

Tse said that it was “absolutely unsatisfactory” for an officer to forcibly remove a journalist’s gas mask without prior request or warning. However, he said he could not tell if that was the case on Sunday because the video clip was “incomplete.”

In a joint statement, the HKJA and HKPPA said that the Secretary for Security John Lee had previously promised that journalists would be exempt from the mask ban. They said that the behaviour of police officers have contradicted Lee, because they asked journalists to take off their masks.

Photojournalist arrest

When questioned about the arrest of a freelance photojournalist on Sunday, police said May James was detained after failing to comply with an identity check. They claimed that she was “uncooperative” at the start of the encounter.

The freelancer – who has collaborated with Hong Kong Free Press in covering the ongoing protests – was arrested at around 9pm on Sunday in Mong Kok. No charges have been levelled against her yet, and she was granted bail after spending the night at a police station.

YouTube video

Chief Superintendent Tse said on Monday that James was arrested for obstructing a police officer, failing to produce proof of identity and resisting arrest.

“Our officers gave repeated warnings to ask her for her identity documents but she refused to comply at the very beginning and was uncooperative,” Tse said. “Having given repeated warnings to demand her ID card in vain, our officers arrested her… Only after police declared arrest, she produced her ID for checking.”

John Tse
John Tse. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

Frontline officers claimed that James did not wear a press pass, Tse said, even though he admitted that she was wearing a reflective vest: “If she complied with our officer’s demand for her identity documents at the very beginning, I believe this incident would have been avoided,” he added.

However, video footage of the incident showed James showing her credentials to officers prior to her arrest. She also immediately complied with an officer’s demand to remove her gas mask.

may james arrest
Photo: STP Media screenshot.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association (HKPPA) have all condemned James’s arrest.

Under Hong Kong law, police have the authority to check any person for their identification documents. Tse on Monday said that officers may ask a reporter for both press credentials and ID card if they have a “reasonable suspicion about the reporter’s identity.”

This was because police have seized “fake press cards” in previous operations, he said, though he did not say why officers found James to be suspicious.

Before her arrest, James could be seen asking riot police officers to display their warrant cards. The Police General Orders state that the public can request uniformed officers to show their warrant cards, unless “the circumstances do not allow or the request is unreasonable.”

Riot Police Avenue of Stars
Riot Police at Avenue of Stars on October 27. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung said that, in the case of James, there was no “reasonable suspicion” about the identity of officers.

“As I could see from some video clips, the officers who were handling this case were all in uniform… So at that moment, our officers decided not to produce their warrant card,” he said.

Kong added that James could not use the officers’ failure to produce their warrant cards as an excuse to not show her own identity card.

may james arrest
Officers arresting May James. Photo: STP Media screenshot.

James told HKFP that she was had been advised not to comment in case police press charges: “I would say however that I do not think it is appropriate for senior police officers to use a press conference to discuss facts and law relating to my case which may ultimately need to be decided by the court,” she said.

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Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan

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.