Watchdog says police acted ‘within guidelines’ during 2019 protests

A man (C) is detained by police during clashes following an unsanctioned march through Hong Kong on September 29, 2019. Photo: Nicolas ASFOURI for AFP
A man (C) is detained by police during clashes following an unsanctioned march through Hong Kong on September 29, 2019. Photo: Nicolas ASFOURI for AFP

The Independent Police Complaints Council said that the force had acted “within guidelines”, but conceded that there was “room for improvement” in a newly released report on last year’s months-long political unrest. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose administration’s controversial Fugitive Offenders bill kickstarted the protests, has since praised the council’s report as “comprehensive, objective, fact-based and weighty”.

The report, which is 999 pages long, singles out significant days between last June and this March, including the protest outside LegCo on June 12, the mob attack in Yuen Long Station on July 21, and the violent clashes in Prince Edward Station on August 31.

The Yuen Long incident saw a group of around 70 people in white — believed to be triad members — storm the MTR station and indiscriminately beat protesters, journalists, and passengers with sticks and other objects for nearly an hour. During the attack, police were conspicuously absent and unable to be reached, prompting widespread condemnation from supporters of the protesters. By the time police in riot gear arrived at the station at around 11:30pm, the crowd of assailants had already dispersed and no arrests were made.

Hundreds of people then headed to the police station in Tin Shui Wai to file reports about the incident, but officers shuttered the door there.

In the chapter on the Yuen Long incident, the IPCC concluded that the force’s failure to seize “golden opportunities” to provide a clear explanation about their inaction during July 21 entrenched the public perception of police as “black cops” and led the force to “become the central target in a campaign of resentment” by protesters.

However, the report largely dismissed more than 1,700 complaints of police misconduct as being fueled by “blatant propaganda”, and stated that their findings suggested that the police had acted within “extensive guidelines” which are “on par with international guidelines”, with the small concession that there was unspecified “room for improvement”.

In its conclusion, the report said, “The image of the Police has lost its luster and the city of Hong Kong has lost its hard-earned reputation as a peaceful city. Most disheartening, too, is the psychological trauma the violence has wrought, particularly on the minds of young people.”

However, it warned that the “community [was] being dragged into an era of terrorism”, citing “recent seizures of assault rifles, handguns and ammunition, and materials for bomb-making”, and justified “the use of force” by police officers who were facing “violence […] in performance of their duty [to keep the peace and maintain law and order].”

Yes, this is the actual backdrop that Carrie Lam stood in front of at a government press briefing. Screenshot: RTHK via Facebook
Yes, this is the actual backdrop that Carrie Lam stood in front of at a government press briefing. It’s… a choice. Screenshot: RTHK via Facebook

During a press conference this evening, Chief Executive Carrie Lam stood in front of a collage of the most devastating moments during last year’s protests emblazoned with the words “The Truth of Hong Kong” and praised the council for its “fair and transparent” work. Lam said that the government generally accepted the report’s 52 suggestions, and asked Secretary for Security John Lee to set up a task force to follow up on said changes.

But she ruled out the possibility of setting up an independent commission of inquiry into allegations of police brutality, which is one of the five demands at the heart of the protests.

“People are trying to use violence to force the government’s hands in meeting their demands. If we set up the inquiry, we’ll be allowing the threat to succeed, so we won’t do it,” Lam said.

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