Hong Kong’s riot police officers will begin returning to regular law enforcement duties such as crime prevention and traffic control because violent pro-democracy protests have faded, the force said on Thursday.
The announcement came a day after the force was given a 25 per cent bump in its annual budget by the city’s pro-Beijing leadership, including a doubling of its equipment allowance and plans to add another 2,500 officers.
The police have been maintaining a permanent roster of riot officers after huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests raged for seven straight months last year.
The rallies and clashes have since died down, partly due to exhaustion and arrests but also because of the emergence of a new deadly coronavirus.
“Given that large-scale violent protests have declined recently, the police will deploy officers in the anti-riot brigades in stages and with flexibility to reinforce other frontline officers in law enforcement work, including community crime prevention and elimination and traffic control,” the police said in a statement.
Hong Kong’s protests were triggered by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China’s opaque and party-controlled courts with millions taking to the streets.
As the government dug their heels in and deployed police to suppress the rallies the movement morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing as well as a call for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.
More than 7,000 arrests were made while police fired nearly 30,000 crowd control munitions such as tear gas and rubber bullets.
Clashes became a weekly and at times daily occurrence with videos of police beatings and arrests quickly going viral.
Polls show the city’s once-revered police force are now loathed by significant chunks of the population and officers are routinely heckled and abused.
Police defended their tactics and said they used appropriate force to match hardcore protesters who embraced violence including arson, vandalism, petrol bombs, rocks and corrosive liquid.
No police officer has been sanctioned over the protests and the top brass have said no instances of inappropriate force was displayed by their officers.
The city’s police watchdog is investigating the force’s handling of the protests but activists accuse the body of being toothless and stacked with government loyalists.
A group of international policing experts stepped down from advising the panel saying it had neither the resources nor expertise to do the job properly.
Protesters want a judge to oversee a fully independent inquiry into the police, a demand city leader Carrie Lam and Beijing, as well as the force, have dismissed.