Plain-clothes detectives have joined beat officers on patrol in response to a crime surge in Hong Kong, as offenders cash in on the diversion of police resources for the city’s anti-government protests.
Burglary reports increased by 44 per cent from the first 11 months of 2018 to the same period last year, while robberies went up 28 per cent, according to police figures released earlier.
Most of the cases came after the social unrest broke out in June last year, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Tsang Chung-bun, assistant commander of Yau Tsim district, where burglary reports for the second half of 2019 hit a five-year high, said it was inevitable that protests would take their toll on police resources.
“But we need a better patrol plan within stretched manpower,” he said.
“Many districts have been mapping out solutions which include sending crime investigation department (CID) officers to the street, including me.
“Officers from the anti-triad unit used to focus on cracking down on gangs but now they have to do everything, including patrol and investigation … plain-clothes CID officers patrol together with beat officers to boost manpower, as officers are prone to attacks.”
The superintendent himself has been seen on the streets. He was stationed in Harbour City mall in Tsim Sha Tsui with his undercover team on December 21, when several hundred masked protesters were on the roam.
Tsang said the Yau Tsim district, which covers Yau Ma Tei and Tsim Sha Tsui, was “severely trashed” during months of protests, which he claimed had affected wider crime levels in the area.
Of the 204 burglary cases in the district last year, 151 took place in the third and fourth quarters, with a similar trend for robberies.
Explaining the surge, Tsang said Tsim Sha Tsui police stations were subjected to serious attacks in the summer, requiring officers to defend buildings even as manpower was needed for dealing with protesters on the streets.
Tsang said some criminals had become emboldened by a wave of criminality that he said could not simply be solved by police and 24-hour patrols, as he cited the “broken windows” theory, which states that a backdrop of crime and antisocial behaviour encourages further offending.
“Especially for youngsters, they might think they would have the same luck to get away with crime after seeing other criminals flee successfully. So they could choose to steal … as people ‘do not need to obey rules any more’.”
Tsang also noted that some culprits were very young – a trend he described as “very worrying” – and said he believed many were being exploited by criminals.
He admitted officers faced difficulties in cracking cases such as burglaries and robberies because of the widespread destruction of CCTV cameras during protests and increasingly negative attitudes to police making the public less cooperative.
Earlier this month, the force tracked down three teens accused of snatching HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) in cash from a mainland Chinese man in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The trio, all 16, were suspected – along with another individual – of attacking a jewellery shop employee, 39, on Chatham Road South, near Mody Road.
The youths, believed to have been lured with cash into committing the crime by a mastermind, made off with a suitcase the victim was carrying, containing HK$10 million worth of US, British, European and Canadian currency.
A HK$15 million robbery in November was the largest single crime of its type seen in the district. Three mainland men had their cash-filled suitcase stolen by a group of six wielding a knife and a wooden rod, also in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Hong Kong has been gripped by more than seven months of social unrest sparked by opposition to draft legislation that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to mainland China, among other jurisdictions.
The protests have developed into a broader anti-government movement with demands including restarting the city’s stalled political reform process.
Demonstrations have repeatedly ended in clashes between anti-government protesters and police.
Hong Kong police handled 2,056 reports of burglary in the first 11 months of 2019, up from 1,428 in the same period of 2018.
About 60 per cent of the cases took place in the second half of the year, following the outbreak of the protests.
Robberies also rose to 170 over the same timescale in 2019, from 133 a year earlier. Nearly three-quarters of those crimes last year were committed from June.
Members of the public have blamed a lack of patrols for the soaring figures.
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