Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Thirty years ago, I joined a team deployed to cover a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. Every detail got choreographed, with nothing left to chance. Of course, security was a paramount concern. Lord Louis Mountbatten had died seven years earlier at the hand of Irish terrorists. The killing of the Queen's second cousin was evidence of a real threat. And yet, during the operation no firearms were visible. Whilst the uniform presence focused on crowd and traffic control. No one was wearing a military-style helmet. Body armour was discreet. Hidden under jackets, out of view.
Now, contrast that with today. Automatic weapons carried in the open. Officers in uniforms that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefront. Robust, visible and with brooding undertones of menace. The posture and tone is a remarkable change from the past.
It’s justifiable to contend, that the modern threats make this necessary. Terrorists and others have evolved their methods. This, in turn, demands the adoption of new tactics and equipment by the police. I have no quibble with that assertion. The danger lies in the gradual creep of military tactics into day-to-day policing. This can leave residents asking when did the police force come to resemble an army of occupation?
In the United States, this issue has raised considerable debate. Gun crime there drove the police to adopt military tactics. Also, in 1997 the Federal government began donating surplus-military kit to the police. Agencies found themselves in possession of grenade launchers, assaults rifles and armoured vehicles. Over 600 of these got given over. So what, you ask? It's sensible to have this kit recycled and used. Yes, no argument there. Except it drove a consequential evolution in tactics. Some would argue the impact of that transformation is unhealthy for community engagement.
With military-style tactics at hand, the police increasingly adopted ‘kinetic options’. Instead of negotiating situations or engaging to resolve issues, the kit came out. This produced an explosion in the use of SWAT units. Even routine drug busts involved SWAT teams. Kicking in doors, using room clearing tactics, teams swept through homes. The public recognised the methods. They'd seen them in movies and in news reports of troops operating in war zones. Those on the receiving end of these raids grew hostile to the police. The adoption of these practices is now blamed for the erosion of police/community trust. It proved a trigger factor in the Ferguson riots of 2014.
Again, you are asking, so what? Why is this relevant to Hong Kong? Well, it may surprise you to know that police forces cross-train. In 2010, I attended active-shooter training in the United States. The instructors were all ex-military. Most of the course was a direct adoption of urban warfare tactics. Great fun, I'll admit. But with a downside. It conditions you to see threats. This is necessary to survive in a dangerous environment, but how do you dial it down when the threats not there. I began to understand why at times US cops ‘over-reacted’. People behave the way trained. If the training emphasises threat and danger, that what officer’s see.
Hong Kong has adopted the NYPD model of 'Hercules' teams to counter the threat of modern terrorists. Mobile hard-hitting teams of terrorists will multi-target with guns and bombs. In response, skilled police teams need to take the fight to the bad guys. There is no time to negotiate or consider your options once an attack starts. You go in hard. Overwhelm them. The threat of a multi-cell, coordinated attack, hitting simultaneous targets is real. Mumbai, Paris, Belgium and London, all point to the risk.
On the one hand, a risk is identified and a response provided, and the other hand, there are consequences. These include impacts on public perception of the police. Any erosion of the bridge between the police and the public impacts trust. It’s a tough equation to balance when the posture of police is pugnacious. To avoid this, experience suggests the police need to re-double community engagement efforts. Only then can you hope to redress the balance.
Police culture and how it evolves is also worthy of consideration in this discussion. As the police adopt military tactics, the soft skills become less prevalent. Those soft skills are so important to many aspects of the job. Without soft skills, the temptation is to escalate, with the use of force. Patience could see a better outcome. Talking remains a viable option in most cases that officers encounter. It's certain that disputes and domestic incidents need that approach.
Unfortunately, boys love their toys. So if you give officers new kit to play with, expect to see it used. I know because I’ve done it. Whilst at the Police Tactical Unit, we experimented with US style side-handled batons. In the right hands, these can deliver an incapacitating blow. In no time officers were carrying the batons downtown. After about a week an eagle-eyed commander put a stop to that.
Public order duties present a specific challenge. The police are working to keep things calm, by adopting a posture that does not inflame the situation. At the same time, officers need to be ready for sudden unrest. Add to that occupational health and safety concerns. If threats exists the law requires officer protection with helmets and body guards. This, in turn, makes the cops look aggressive. Thereby defeating attempts to assuage the protesters. Thus, hiding units in ‘hard order’ close at hand became a skill, so as not to inflame a situation
Getting back to my main point. The police need community support to do their job. Otherwise, it is not policing as I understand it … it’s an occupation. There is a risk in increasing the amounts of military-type hardware and tactics. It can isolate the community served. But, modern threats make it necessary to have a rapid counter-reaction ready. Only by the public recognising this policing dilemma, will mutual understanding result.
Likewise, the police need to get sophisticated. Their repertoire needs to include being able to switch roles as circumstances dictate. Individual officers must heed their behaviour, even in isolated incidents. These days single incidents get looped on social media for an impact beyond their true gravity. An officer may have a hundred encounters with people on his shift that go well. The one time he slips-up gets the attention.
It’s trite, but a ‘policeman's lot is not a happy one’ especially when you also expect him to be a soldier.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.