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Wednesday, Dec 02, 2020

HK police get big boost to tackle new protests

HK forces get bigger budgets and more personnel as police leaders vow to prevent a repeat of last year's turmoil

Hong Kong’s police force is set to get more reinforcements as speculation mounts a new round of debilitating protests could soon be in the offing against Beijing’s pending new security law.

While US cities Minneapolis and New York are moving to curb their forces after the police killing of African American George Floyd, the 36,600-strong Hong Kong police force will see a 25% rise in its budget.

Hong Kong’s government has budgeted HK$25.8 billion (US$3.33 billion) for the force in the new financial year. The city’s law enforcement agencies are already among the world’s largest in terms of numbers and funding as a percentage of the population.

Officers are scheduled to get bigger allowances, including for overtime work in dealing with public processions, rising from HK$256 million to a whopping HK$2.55 billion. The force aims to add some 2,500 members to its payroll by March 2021.

With 487 officers per 100,000 residents, Hong Kong has one of the highest police to people ratios among major urban centers in Asia, higher than Taiwan’s 272 and South Korea’s 227, but lower than Singapore’s 713.

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily cited a source as saying the force would recruit 500 officers to help back up the paramilitary Police Tactical Unit to ensure all of the force’s five regional divisions will have no less than two PTU teams on stand by to respond to contingencies.

Police will set aside about HK$610 million for the procurement of firearms, ammunition and protective gear this year, a twofold increase from a year ago, on top of HK$76.7 million for six new composite armored vehicles.

More money is also needed to refill depleted police force stocks. Officers fired more than 16,100 tear gas canisters, 10,100 rubber bullets and 2,000 bean bag rounds throughout Hong Kong’s months-long anti-China extradition bill protests last year.

Police top brass contend that the new bigger budget is necessary.

In its latest mobilization at the end of May, police assembled 3,500 officers citywide amid calls by activists and netizens to rally against Beijing’s move to impose a national security law on the territory.

In protest hotspots like Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Mongkok, those who heeded the call to take to the streets found themselves instantly outnumbered by riot police in full gear moving in solid phalanxes.

In that instance, police fired tear gas to preempt trouble and keep demonstrators at bay. That was followed by 400 arrests across the city in a bid to block a repeat of the vandalism and anarchy seen at the height of last year’s turmoil.

While the Hong Kong government scrambles to pump more money into the police, it’s not clear if any of the funds will be dedicated to burnishing the force’s dented image.

Once hailed as Asia’s finest modern police agency across the region, the 176-year-old Hong Kong police has recently taking a beating in public opinion polls. It scored 36 out of 100 in a May survey by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, with 44% of the 1,000 respondents giving the police an outright zero.

The Independent Police Complaints Council identified many areas for improvement in its report on the force’s handling of last year’s protests.

Pro-establishment lawmakers and other proponents of dedicating more resources to the force say that local officers are the city’s only disciplined service to handle lingering social unrest.

They, like others, are loathe to see Beijing send in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to quell new rounds of violent protests if the police are not up to the task.

They also point out that most major cities in the US and Europe have similar or higher officers-to-population ratios. Washington DC has well over 600 officers per 100,000 residents, while Berlin’s figure is 480.

Most agree the police deserve credit for their exemplary work in fighting crime rate. Hong Kong saw just 787 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2019, compared with New York City’s 1,987.

On a forum popular among local officers, an anonymous sergeant wrote that more funding would be in line with the fast-evolving crime and protest situation in the city, and that more personnel and a bigger arsenal are warranted to “nix the emerging local terrorism in the bud.”

He wrote that explosives seized in recent police swoops are a worrying indicator of possible future trouble.

Citing the chaos in Minneapolis, the police sergeant opined that there would have been multiple casualties in Hong Kong during the nine months of anti-extradition bill protests last year if the city’s police were anything like their US counterparts.

Newly-installed Police Commissioner Chris Tang, widely viewed as a hardliner, has vowed he will not allow the city to descend into chaos again.

In line with that tough stance, a number of superintendents involved in dispersal operations last year have been promoted to head key regional divisions under his watch.

They include Rupert Dover, who stoked controversy last year when commanding various dispersal and arrest operations that in the aftermath of clashes with protestors resembled war zones.

He has risen through the ranks since then to become an assistant commissioner of police in charge of Kowloon.

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