Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Hong Kong’s crime trend mirrors what’s going on elsewhere in the world. In broad terms crime is moving online. Frauds, deceptions and outright theft of material are all features of the new crime era. Street crime such as robberies, snatching and assorted hooliganism are down. The gun crime that was a feature of the 1990s is now rare. These crimes disappeared as the mainland imposed tighter controls on their side of the fence.
I’ve written in some detail about crime in this blog. This piece aims to review the changes in the past twenty years since the handover. For visitors, tourists and residents alike, Hong Kong is one of the safest places in the world. In short, there is little to worry about. A polite, efficient and well-resourced police force is omnipresent in the city. This visibility and the need to carry identity cards means crime can be ‘nipped in the bud’.
Official police crime statistics tell a story. Total recorded crime in 2001 was 73,008 cases. In 2016, the figure was 60,646. That’s against the background of adding two million people to the population. Robberies in 2001, stood at 3,167 cases. By 2016 robberies dropped to 260 cases. Deceptions are the growth industry. In 2001, the public reported 4,051 deception cases to police. By 2015, the number was 9,355, although it dropped 7,260 in 2016. Of course, official crime statistics should be treated with caution. Past crime victimisation surveys have found that some crimes are under-reported. Thefts and other minor cases often don’t make it to the statistics. Similar things are seen in all jurisdictions. The public doesn’t want to waste time on a report and statement taking.
Online deceptions and con tricks have exploded with the adoption of the internet. The internet has given the criminal access to every home. Criminal gangs are leveraging social-engineering techniques to ensnail people. The methods have evolved over time. The street deception emerged in the late 1990s. Old folks were the target. The hoaxers claimed bad luck was about to befall them. Actors pretending to be monks and shamans assisted the sting. Pensioners handed over money in worship ceremony purported to protect them. Education and vigilant bank staff helped curtail that trend.
Next emerged the fake calls from public security officials. These deception came in several varieties. Either you or a relative had committed a crime on the mainland. Paying Money could resolve matters. The calls came in from overseas, which hampered enforcement efforts. Again, education was the key.
Over time, the con artists became more sophisticated. Ladies, some well-educated and very wealthy, were groomed online. Made to believe the other party loved them and that marriage is on the cards. The scammers took in millions of dollars. Meanwhile, men engaging in sex acts with online lady friends found themselves threatened. Pay up or get exposed.
In 2015, scammers garnered an estimated $78-HK million. Masterminded in Taiwan, the syndicates operated from Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. In 2016 there were 1,423 reports of such scams. Police said 561 of those cases were successful, with a total haul of HK$300 million.
Police enforcement had some success working with overseas agencies. Syndicates were hit and shut down. Yet, the scams are so lucrative that new syndicates sprang up to replace the old. All the evidence points towards education being the best defence. Citizens need vigilance.
Drug trafficking has benefitted from social media and instant messaging. Addicts don’t need to wander down to the trafficking spots to buy their drugs. Just make a call. A courier will bring them around. Interdiction by the police is harder because the trafficker is no longer static.
Emerging social concerns are also bringing pressure to the police. Animal cruelty cases provoke an emotive reaction. A few politicians have exploited these to drum up anti-police sentiment. Claims of a lack of sympathy or inaction are easy to make. Likewise, allegations of insensitivity towards sex workers and rape victims are trotted out. Most of these assertions do not stand up to critical examination, but the damage is done. Meanwhile, domestic violence cases continue to draw on police resources. Strict protocols mandate police action and the inter-agency follow-up. These procedures seek to keep families safe.
Public order duties have in recent years undermined police efforts against crime. Manpower taken away from routine front-line duties erodes many initiatives. The tempo of anti-crime operations needed to slow as officers focused on other duties. Criminals benefited from this distraction.
At a local level, the police are coming under more scrutiny to resolve illegal parking. The government's failure to control vehicle numbers or provide off-street parking puts the police on the spot. Communities are rightly demanding that roads are clear for traffic flow and emergency vehicle access. Even relentless enforcement action does little to dent the problem. Parking fines are so low, the drivers accept the costs as a business expense. Thus, ineffective policies are aggravating tensions between the public and police.
Since 1997, the Hong Kong Police has benefited from societal changes. Diminishing on-street crime can be attributed to many factors. Gentrification and the appearance of a middle class are contributing. Moreover, people are indoors playing video games rather than on the streets at night. Effective police action that targets known individuals and black-spots is proving effective.
The prevalence of online crime will no doubt continue to be a significant challenge. Street management issues are also coming to the fore. Illegal parking and obstructions irk the public. Poor planning coupled with weak policies will feed that testing situation.
Finally, its worth commenting on public satisfaction with the police. The Hong Kong University tracking survey had satisfaction at 63% in 2012. By 2016, a modest increase to 64% occurred. As regards perception of safety during daytime, a 2015 survey returned a high satisfaction rate of 90 per cent. At night, the figure was 75%. Both figures support the view that the public feels safe.
And what of the future? Immediate policing challenges will focus on public order duties and the management of protest. That thankless task will remain as tricky as ever.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.