Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Year after year Commissioner’s of Police stand proud trumpeting the fall in the crime rate. This annual event is an opportunity to bask in the light of good publicity. And rightly so. Running a Police Force is no easy business. You need those few moments of acclaim to recognise the efforts of officers.
In 2011, Hong Kong recorded 75,936 crimes. In 2016 that had fallen to 60,646 crimes. Robbery saw a fall from 731 to 260, with only deception cases seeing a significant rise. These climbed from 6,134 to 7,260. More on that later.
I don’t want to rain on the Police’s parade. Yet, its true many factors beyond their remit are helping drive down crime. The commendable efforts of the police are only aspect. For a start, Hong Kong ladies are having fewer babies. Thus a whole cohort of potential criminals is not around. We all know that middle-class kids tend to be less likely to turn to crime.
But these days even lower class kids are getting more attention from parents. Which means they are less likely to stray. Social programmes, with better interventions by schools, are driving that result.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the old generation of heroin addicts is dying off. Some of these guys funded their habit with quick cash crimes. This generation is not consuming heroin, thus, the cohort of criminal addicts shrinks.
We should not ignore the impact of the Internet and online gaming. Whilst the Internet has been a crime innovator, its also removed kids from public spaces. Especially at night. The old breeding grounds of triads are no longer populated by teenagers. Meanwhile, games centres, always a potential crime spot, have reduced in number. The fun is now available on hand-held devices and home computers.
Involvement in street crime is improbable when people are indoors, harnessed to computers. Reduced chance encounters with gangs and yobs result. Nonetheless, its well recognised that the Internet has spawned a new tranche of crime. Deceptions, identity theft, sexual ambushes are all facilitated by the virtual world. It’s probable that this type of crime is under-reported. Also, the chances of catching the culprits are remote, whilst embarrassment deters victims. Young men are not keen to share the fact their wanking. The prospect of turning up at a police station to give a report of your wrist actions is not something to relish.
In action across borders, law enforcement has had success in disrupting this activity. Still, as soon as one group gets broken up, other springs into life. It’s lucrative, easy to organise. Large syndicates operating out of the Philippines and Indonesia are robust. It never ceases to amaze me that people still get caught out despite the public warnings. You can’t account for stupidity.
Hong Kong’s crime situation has always come under outside influence. Events in China is the usual driver. The gun crime of the 1980s and early 1990s arose from a downsizing of the PLA plus easy access to firearms. In recent times the opening up of Shenzhen has drawn criminals there. Lax law enforcement and ease of access to drugs attracted Hong Kongers over the boundary. On a recent flight to Canada, a young man seated next to me admitted he could access drugs with ease in Shenzhen. Although, he bemoaned it was harder in Hong Kong.
Macau with its rapid growth in casino gambling had a profound impact on Hong Kong crime. Most the smart triads headed over there to take rich pickings. They tended to operate lucrative private gaming junkets. Loan sharking, debt collection and acting as heavies brought a steady income. Having the smart guys leave town was not all good news. The lesser triads left behind tend to operate without a ‘Daai Lo’. This has adverse consequences. Petty disputes didn’t get settled as groups fragmented. In turn, this led to an escalation of violence.
Still, the boom in Macau and Shenzhen allowed most triads to wet their beaks. Which meant they weren’t causing trouble in Hong Kong.
The gentrification of old areas has created benefits. Space that was before ungoverned is now brought under control. Uniformed security patrols, CCTV, access controls all help. These days confined to remote villages and premises without security, burglaries are rare.
Social factors are also having a positive payoff. As a middle class emerges it brings with it values and behaviour that discourages crime. Children from such a background fear the censure of their school, family and cohort. Parents caution that education overseas depends on avoiding a criminal conviction. I arrested a 15-year-old for stealing. His mother's first question … “Will he still be able to study overseas?”. Such is the thinking.
This enforcement of norms of behaviour can be seen in people lining up to enter MTR trains. When I arrived in Hong Kong in the 1980s this didn’t happen. It was a scramble to get on and off. Society evolved. Over time people adopted behaviours that contrast with their rustic northern cousins. Involvement in dishonesty and crime is one aspect of this.
Finally, the police deserve credit for their actions and long-term approaches. Anti-youth crime initiatives, coupled with the Superintendents Discretion scheme, are a success. At the same time, school liaison teams have kept thousands of kids out of trouble. Volunteer schemes such as ‘Operation Breakthrough’ compliment these efforts.
The fact that the Hong Kong Police provide a rapid response to all crimes is a tremendous benefit. Culprits get apprehended, the evidence preserved whilst sustained public's of safety arise. Other than that, CCTV has proved a boon. Conflicting versions of events are now soon resolved. The evidence gathered from CCTV removes doubts about what happened. With blame assigned, convictions prove easy.
In the early days of CCTV, there were many instances of police officers getting caught out. In a memorable case, a Superintendent briefed the media on a robbery. He asserted that alert officers had followed armed robbers into a gambling den. When the robbers produced firearms, the officers responded. With two robbers shot its was tea and medals. The next day footage emerged. The officers where inside the gambling den playing when the robbers entered. O dear.
DNA and fingerprint evidence continue to bring many to justice. This is important because the Hong Kong Police is thorough in gathering such evidence. Even if the immediate case does not produce an arrest, the bad guys will get caught for something. Trawling through old cases and DNA evidence can clear up a load of crime. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process, that works.
Policing in Hong Kong underwent an upgrade in professionalism from the 1980s onwards. This allowed produced good headway against crime. Alas, distractions did occur. The Vietnamese boat people influx stretched resources, drawing officers away. Likewise, protests and the Occupy movement had a similar impact. It remains remarkable that the Hong Kong Police was able to shake off these events. With the demise of Occupy in late 2014, officers are again focused on interdicting crime.
Yet, despite these successes, the picture remains fluid. The challenge of the future will be cybercrime. Today's police recruits will face a different world. In 10 years time they will be investigating crimes that don’t currently exist.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.