The PTU or the 'Blue Berets' is the Force's anti-riot unit. Birthed out of difficult times of unrest in the late 1950s. It later morphed into the group that provides the Commissioner of Police a ready supply of manpower. This includes dealing with a crime wave, crowd-control, mass-arrest or supporting counter-terrorist operations.
In the anti-crime role, PTU is all about flooding an area with cops. In-your-face-policing. PTU has a paramilitary flavour as reflected in the training. This covers operational planning, ambush techniques, helicopter deployments, cordoning and search.
There is also an emphasis on fitness. A company, commanded by a superintendent, has four platoons. Assigned to Foxtrot Company, I had joint command of a platoon with 41 officers. Most inspectors attend PTU while young and junior in service.
Commanding the platoon with me was Ray Lok. Ray was older than me. Educated in the United States and Canada, we’d been through the Police Training School together. Our relationship was professional yet never close. We work in unison before our subordinates, keeping any difference to ourselves. That allowed us to avoid splitting the platoon into two camps.
After a three-week introductory course with the sergeants, the constables arrived. It was then that the pace of training picked up.
PTU training is a full day. The physical exercise was relentless. Meanwhile, the anti-riot manoeuvres got hammered home in strict foot-drill sessions. Our junior officers were not expected to think much. Respond to orders, get it done. That was the ethos.
This regime proved its worth time and time again. Under the difficult circumstances of public disorder, officers reverted to their training. Using muscle memory to go through weapon loading, aiming and firing. The Romans did it. Down the ages, drilling and rote actions. At least in the early stages of training. Thankfully, everybody got to contribute once we'd mastered the basics.
"Failing to plan, is planning to fail" that's the PTU motto. Drummed into us at every opportunity. I still use it. The smallest detail could trip you up. So it was necessary to have clarity of thought and cover everything.
If the PTU course wasn’t stressful enough, we had an added complication. That of getting Mike Lyne out of bed and up to base each day. We carpooled driving from Kowloon each morning. Mike was to be collected from the infamous Shangri-La police inspectors house on Waterloos Road. He's supposed to wait outside for us. Except, most days he was missing.
This entailed us then getting out the car, then searching the house to find him. Dishevelled, half-conscious and minus his clothes we'd find him in one room or another. The smell was something else. He'd then be dragged or carried to the car. With his head hanging out the window, we'd set off. Most days he’d vomit before Tai Po.
This was hilarious the first few times. But by week two our stretched patience snapped, and we left him. Well, that didn't go down well with the boss. It's made clear we’d be responsible if he didn’t turn up. So it continued. I take no pleasure in saying that Mike’s career ended shortly after our PTU attachment. He left a criminal file in a bar. Even his Dad couldn't cover that up.
Once the basic drills were done, we moved into a tactical phase. PTU staff now tested us in exercises. This required us to plan, brief our men, then execute the plan with time pressures on us. As the military says "no plan survives contact with the enemy." The same applies to police work, as dynamic situations need quick-thinking, constant adjustments.
Superintendent Peter Bolton was the most formidable of the debriefers. He had the delivery of Brian Blessed and not a shred of diplomacy in his body. He’d rip into any commander how’d dithered or shown less than robust planning.
Peter had served in World War II, carrying out missions with partisans in Yugoslavia. He knew his stuff, didn't tolerate fools and was usually spot on when it came to tactics and command issues. I liked him.
Peter’s style did not suit everyone. Company Commanders prickled at their exposed failings displayed in front of junior staff. Others took exception to this ruthless delivery. But none questioned his thinking, honesty nor objectiveness. One brave Superintendent decided to challenge Peter. He asserted that adverse comments made in front of juniors “Could undermine morale”.
Peter’s response was swift.
“Morale, morale you say. Your incompetence is already undermining their morale.”
Bit by bit our leadership skills emerged, usually from failure and setbacks. Moulded by experience, in a constant stream of scenarios, we mastered the process although without finesse. All this training culminated in a sizeable terrorist exercise.
The whole company of 170 officers deployed to "cordon and contain" a hostage incident. At the same time negotiators sought to open communications. In the shadows, the Special Duties Unit prepared an assault plan.
As part of the inner cordon, I found myself too close to the target building. Face-to-face with a terrorist, a volley of blank rounds had me scrambling away. My cover and move skills improved that day, although I did need a change of underwear.
Be expected to think on our feet, maintain control and always prepared to explain yourself. Debriefings after each exercise were thorough, ruthless affairs, but in the main constructive.
Mentally and physically by the end of the PTU training, I was well prepared for the role. My faith in the organisation restored after my indifferent SDS attachment. We had trained for a particular purpose, then tested. I felt confident we could do it. Moreover, do it well.
We next moved to the regional attachment phase operating out of Kwun Tong Police Station in Kowloon East. As the saying goes, why “Tango in Paris when you can Foxtrot in Kowloon?”
"Don't expect too much fun in Kowloon East" cautioned my men.
"It’s all crappy factories, housing estates, squatter huts hanging off the hill-sides and girls with fat legs."
We soon got down to our job of patrolling; on occasions providing cordons for crime scenes. Nothing much happened. I was quickly bored.
But Yue Man Square in the middle of Kwun Tong soon got my attention. A known hangout for drug addicts, no doubt low-level trafficking was underway there. Our duties kept us away from the area, but we passed en-route to the more mundane areas. And, of course, as a police officer, if I see a suspected crime I'm duty bound to deal with it.
I started small. At shift change over, I'd take a column of officers (eight) with me to 'respond' to things I'd seen in the square. Our arrival produced the usual scramble to flee by half-conscious addicts. My boys loved this. Chasing them down through the crowds, seizing the drugs and bringing down the addicts. At first, the hierarchy ignored my incursions in the square. When questioned I'd claim.
"Sir, we were passing ... I saw this guy handing out what appeared to be drugs. I can't ignore that"
The unimpressed company commander knew my game. He decided to let me run with it for the time being. Then I over-reached. He finally drew the line when I surrounded the square. My whole platoon swept through, searching everyone. We got a good result that day. Several heroin seizures, including a large cache hidden inside a folded umbrella.
"This has got to stop. You’re supposed to be patrolling in Sau Mau Ping."
My attempts at explaining met with a firm response.
"Don't give me that shit. Stick to your assigned task."
My partner, Ray, was also less than impressed. A steady easy-going sort, he was beginning to view me as a reckless young pup. As we shared command of the platoon, he acted to moderate my impetus side.
The problem was the tasking in Kowloon East were tedious. Walking around housing estates trying to deter burglaries was no tiresome. Also, we got hit with static post duties outside goldsmiths shops. After the PTU training, these roles were a letdown.
One blessing, our stint in Kowloon East was short. Next, the bright lights of Kowloon West beckoned. With Tsim Sha Tsui, Yaumati, Mongkok and Sham Shui Po as our arena for the next six months.
The company moved to Mongkok, right in the heart of Kowloon. This is one of the busiest and most populated places on the planet. That's more like it.
The tasks assigned to us in Kowloon West provided more latitude for us to be pro-active. Soon my platoon was knocking off pickpockets and muggers. A steady haul of illegal immigrants also kept us busy. Finally, I felt I’d found my forte.