Vital to keep police morale high

Updated: 2013-08-14 06:03

By Hong Liang(HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

A few months ago when I was walking down the street in Central, I saw a young mainland couple asking a police officer for direction. I am sure they wouldn't have thought of doing that in their home town.

The Hong Kong police reputation as a dedicated force protecting and helping the people, rather than bossing them around, is widely known and admired on the mainland. I once asked for directions from a police officer sitting behind a counter in a Beijing train station. He tapped the sign which said police on the desk and waved me away.

In Shanghai, the police officers seem a bit more approachable. But you can hardly spot a uniformed police officer on the street other than those who are busy directing the hopeless traffic in busy intersections.

The trust and respect that Hong Kong people have for their police force didn't come easy. Before the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), in 1975, the public had the notion that police officers were nothing more than licensed gangsters.

Since then, the Hong Kong Police Force has largely transformed itself into a highly disciplined and largely corruption-free force that is dedicated to maintaining law and order impartially and effectively. Most of the officers recruited in recent times have a post-secondary education. They are mostly polite and willing to help when asked. And most Hong Kong people won't think twice about calling on the police when they need help no matter how trivial it may be.

That was at least the impression I got before I read in the local press the comment by Jat Sew-tong, senior barrister and chairman of the police watchdog agency. Speaking to reporters, Mr Jat warned about a possible breakdown in public trust and urged the police to urgently review its guidelines to ensure impartiality especially in maintaining order at politically-charged public demonstrations.

His comments followed a chain of events supposedly triggered by a video posted online showing a woman, who was identified as a high-school teacher, shouting abuse at police officers for what she considered an uneven handling of a public dispute between two groups of demonstrators. Asking rhetorically, "why did a teacher swear at an officer?", Jat concluded: "the relationship between the public and police has reached a dangerous level".

This is indeed a sad state of affairs that requires all Hong Kong people to ponder what has gone wrong. Some social analysts have put forward the view that growing public suspicion of the police, as well as other institutions, stems mainly from a general sense of disappointment at the perceived failure of the government in dealing with issues of public concern.

Primary among these issues are the widening wealth gap, diminishing opportunities, limited social mobility, escalating property prices and worsening air pollution. Of course, it must be understood that in a free market economy, the government has limited resources at its disposal to address some of these issues. The Hong Kong government has long maintained the view that its role should always be limited to that of a facilitator rather than a direct participant, particularly in the area involving the redistribution of wealth.

The strained relationship between the public and the police is a collateral damage which must not be allowed to affect the morale of the many dedicated men and women in the force.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 08/14/2013 page9)