The abrupt departure of overseas experts from a panel reviewing the Hong Kong police force’s actions during anti-government protests has laid bare the deficiencies of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) in probing the conduct of officers, according to civil rights activists and academics.
Lawrence Ho Ka-ki, assistant professor of social sciences at Education University, said the decision of the five overseas experts, who came from major western democracies and common law jurisdictions, dealt a serious blow to Hong Kong’s international image.
“The IPCC model may be useful for looking into the conduct of individual police officers. But it doesn’t work when it comes to large-scale and citywide actions of the force,” Ho, an expert on policing in Hong Kong, said.
“Most members of the IPCC are amateurs who do not have expertise to monitor police conduct,” Ho said.
“Among the experts invited to take part in the probe were Denis O’Connor, the former British chief inspector of constabulary, and Justice Colin Doherty, the head of New Zealand’s police watchdog.
“The council does not even have the statutory powers for fact-finding and investigation,” Ho said.
The police watchdog’s remit presently allows it to only review complaints against officers passed on by the force’s complaints division, but it does not have the power to launch its own investigation or subpoena any documents or witnesses.
Ho said a commission of inquiry with statutory powers was the best way to address public concerns over alleged police brutality.
Civil Rights Observer member Icarus Wong Ho-yin said the overseas experts’ decision indicated that the IPCC’s approach had failed to deliver a credible probe into the allegations of excessive use of force by police while handling protests in recent months.
“IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh should tender resignation immediately and the government should set up a commission of inquiry with full investigatory powers,” he said.
Several opinion polls indicate that most Hongkongers support an independent inquiry, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has insisted on leaving all questions over police conduct to the IPCC.
The government said in a statement on Wednesday it would study all the IPCC recommendations before deciding the next course of action.
Two weeks ago, the embattled leader said the government was in the process of setting up an independent review committee that would look into the causes of the crisis.
But former transport and housing minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the review committee was unlikely to satisfy those demanding an independent probe into police actions.
Dr Edmund Cheng Wai, a political scientist from City University, said the latest developments had offered the government an opportunity to back down. “It has proven the current mechanism does not work,” he said.
Cheng said any sensible government would now empower the proposed review committee, granting it the power to summon witnesses, and widening its scope to look into not only the current issues but also the deep-seated problems in the city.
Hospital Authority chairman Henry Fan Hung-ling last week said the review committee should be granted statutory powers to call witnesses to help its investigation, which would otherwise invariably cover police operations.
Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a pro-establishment lawmaker and a member of the Basic Law Committee which advises Beijing on the city’s mini-constitution, said any review should not only pinpoint police, and floated a new middle-ground proposal on the powers of the review committee.
She suggested limiting the power of subpoena to part of the review of the causes of the social unrest, instead of the whole review that would touch on deep-seated issues.
“The committee is not exactly a commission of inquiry, but it does enjoy part of the power of summons. That may be the best way to find a middle ground to solve the problem,” Leung said.
She described it as a golden opportunity to solve the problem, noting there was relatively less violence over the last week.
“I urge the government to grant more power to the review committee to soothe the situation,” Leung said.
The only thing worse than starting something and failing… is not starting something.