HK police switch to ‘softly-softly’ tactics to cool tensions after violent clashes with anti-extradition bill protesters

19-Jun-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 7:04 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong police have switched to a “softly-softly” approach, maintaining a minimal presence and deploying firearms-free officers near the legislature over the past two days, after the force was widely criticised for firing tear gas and rubber bullets at anti-extradition bill protesters last week.

The new strategy was adopted after the government announced on Saturday it would suspend the controversial bill, which if passed, would allow fugitive transfers with jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no extradition deal, including mainland China, where critics said a fair trial could not be guaranteed.

The bill sparked mass rallies over the past two Sundays and violent clashes between protesters and police last Wednesday, when officers fired 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and 20 beanbag rounds at demonstrators who occupied roads near the Legislative Council.

Some demonstrators used sharpened metal poles, bricks and barriers to storm police defence lines and the force classified the violent acts of certain radical protesters as a riot.

(South China Morning Post)

(South China Morning Post)

Accused of using excessive force against protesters, officers kept a minimal presence during Sunday’s march, which nearly 2 million people attended, according to the organiser, almost double the 1.03 million turnout the previous week.

Although about 5,000 police were deployed in two shifts on both Sundays and the Wednesday, most officers were kept on standby indoors for the latest march.

Officers on Sunday did not stop protesters from spilling onto roads adjacent to the agreed march route or occupying thoroughfares near Legco after the rally ended in the evening.

It is incumbent on both sides to take the steam out of the confrontation now

Steve Vickers, security consultant

And shortly after daybreak on Monday, only about 80 officers, including 20 policewomen, were sent to appeal to hundreds of demonstrators who occupied Harcourt Road to leave.

While many of the protesters wore helmets, goggles and masks, the uniformed and plain clothes officers, including a team of more than 10 negotiators, carried only batons and pepper spray.

A senior police source said the change of tactics was to avoid unwanted confrontations or clashes, while the use of force was only necessary if the protests turned violent.

“The force has changed tactics and switched to the use of persuasion,” the source said.

“Police now use a soft approach and try to avoid a hard one as the government has changed and did not push the extradition bill. The minimal presence on Sunday and Monday gave no target for marchers to attack.

“But we have the capability and are prepared to handle any emergency.”

Another source said police did not want to be caught in a political storm and get sandwiched between the public and government.

The protesters agreed to retreat from occupied roads on Monday morning and some even helped to remove barricades they set up at Lung Wo Road.

Steve Vickers, a security consultant and former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau, said the “softly-softly” approach was “entirely appropriate”.

“It is incumbent on both sides to take the steam out of the confrontation now,” Vickers said.

“A softly-softly approach is therefore entirely appropriate, even if there is some inconvenience to the public. Under such circumstances, discussions can take place and decisions can be made on future action to avoid clashes,” she said.

“Ultimately, the chief executive needs to resolve this herself. The police are simply caught in the middle.”

While officers were said to have been threatened, bullied and snubbed in a public backlash against the handling of Wednesday’s clashes, a police union said officers’ morale remained high.

“The taunting will only stoke our determination to strike down rioters,” said Albert Lee Yiu-ting, spokesman for the Junior Police Officers’ Association, which represents two-thirds of the 30,000-strong force.

The association had issued at least four letters to members over the past seven days to address crowd violence and anger within the force.

Lee said officers were upset by snubs, online abuse and public humiliation as they were just discharging their duties to maintain law and order.

“Even hospital medical staff treated our men impolitely. No true Hongkonger wants to see the force collapse. The force is the last shield to uphold the rule of law, ” Lee said.

But he said police morale remained high as lessons had been learned after the 2014 Occupy movement.

“We now use less lethal weapons to deal with riots, compared to the wooden bullets used during the British colonial era. Wooden bullets can kill people,” he said.

He echoed Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo Wai-chung, who said last week the force remained restrained and tolerant to allow protesters to express their opinions.

“If all these clashes happened in the United States, officers there would have shot to kill,” Lee said.



Category: Hong Kong

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