Another item for the annals of Hong Kong law enforcement. Last week, a 15-year-old was arrested following a fracas on a basketball court.

The original crime was committed by a group of teenagers who were playing basketball on the court in Wong Tai Sin. This could be interpreted as a violation of the “no larger gatherings than two” rule, and moreover some of them – it was credibly reported in The Standard – were not wearing masks.

mask coronavirus covid social distancing
May 1, 2020 in Hong Kong, CHINA. Basketball nets is blocked and the court is fenced with taped to stop public to use during the coronavirus pandemic. File photo: May James/HKFP.

“Three plainclothes officers arrived at the scene,” the report continues, “to find that most of the teenagers had left, except for the 15 year old and his 13-year-old brother. Sources said the two refused to leave, as they wanted to retrieve their basketball, which was stuck on the hoop.”

The elder brother then reportedly got into a verbal argument with the officers, which in due course escalated. He was arrested on charges of assaulting police. Video apparently shows him pinned to the ground and resisting. He was later released on bail.

According to his father the boy was later found to have injuries to his face, chest and hands. Basketball is a rough game these days, it appears.

YouTube video
A video shared by online media outlet Channel C HK which appears to show a teenager subdued to the ground.

There is an interesting legal point here. Clearly the original game was a possible violation of anti-Covid rules. On the other hand all the players except the two ball owners had either left or did so when the police arrived.

So it would appear that at that point no offence was being committed. Two people is the limit. The remaining two were perfectly entitled to remain on the scene to retrieve their ball, or for any other lawful purpose. You have to wonder why the cops concerned thought it necessary to have any interaction with them at all.

According to a later police statement: “The 15-year-old became emotional when officers stopped and searched him, leading the teenager to assault two officers with his hands.” So there was a stop and search? What, one wonders, was the justification for that? At what point did the officers say they were officers? Did they show a warrant card or two?

Well no doubt all this will be a matter for a magistrate, if it gets that far. The thing that set off my bullshit detector was the “three plainclothes officers.”

plainclothes police officer Tai Po
A plainclothes police officer subduing another plainclothes officer in Tai Po on December 26, 2019. File photo.

I have personally been the subject of occasional public complaints, a normal hazard for Hong Kong bagpipers. The police people who turned up were invariably polite, friendly, sympathetic… and in uniform.

It is nice to know that police take complaints about violations of Covid rules seriously, but difficult to believe that even in these manpower-stretched days the normal response is to borrow three detectives from the Criminal Investigation Department.

Was this, one wonders, a case in which the complaining “members of the public” were also the investigating officers? 

Whatever the truth of these matters it seems there are a couple of principles which our hard-stretched law enforcers may be neglecting.

The first one is that the default rule for interactions between the police and the public is and must involve the officer being in uniform. We all understand that there are occasions and purposes for which the uniform is unnecessary and even impossible, but the general rule should be that a police person looks like a police person.

police passing out 2021
The passing-out parade at the Hong Kong Police College on November 27, 2021. File photo: GovHK.

If the police person is not so uniformed, it would be nice to think that the production of a warrant card at the outset was a must. Nice, but a bit optimistic. I noticed in another case last week a young man apprehended by a plainclothes police officer explained his reluctance to be arrested as the result of the arresting individual’s repeated refusal to show his warrant card. The magistrate dismissed asking to see the card as a “way of wasting time.”

Similarly in the case of Samuel Bickett, still sub judice so we shall not go into details, the magistrate was quite happy to make excuses for a policeman in plainclothes who had not only refused to show his warrant card but denied he was a member of the force.

This sort of thing is not conducive to warm police-public relations.

So, uniforms if possible, please. It must follow, I think, that when a police person is not in uniform, they should show considerable restraint in attempting activities which involve potentially abrasive interactions with unsuspecting members of the public. People do “become emotional” when subjected to duress by strangers. Law-abiding citizens respect the uniform.

Of course we all understand the merits of the saying that “a policeman is never off-duty.” We do not expect off-duty or plainclothes police to stand idly by if they come across a bank robbery or a murder in progress. But children playing on a basketball court?

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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.