Human rights groups voiced grave misgivings on Tuesday at Hong Kong’s decision to issue telescoping metal batons to police officers “for the purpose of executing constabulary duties whilst off-duty.”
The decision was seen as a signal that the level of force employed against protesters is about to rise significantly.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press, the police department ordered 10,000 of the collapsible batons and will begin distributing them immediately. The memo announcing the deployment of the weapons urged officers to “display self-discipline and exercise a high degree of restraint” when using them.
Icarus Wong of police watchdog group Civil Rights Observer cautioned:
When the police force delegate this power to front-line officers, it has a responsibility to ensure that the usage is appropriate, for example that the officers would need to declare their identity and show their warrant card. You can imagine, if there is an off-duty police officer, with no warrant card or identification number, who attacks citizens with their baton. It would be impossible to hold them accountable
Wong noted the Hong Kong public no longer trusts police to show restraint and carefully monitor the activities of officers, and implied the decision to arm off-duty officers could give the government a means of deploying untraceable and unaccountable muscle.
“Once you finish using a baton and choose not to report it, there won’t be any trace,” he said.
Hong Kong’s on-duty police officers have been criticized for swinging their batons with too much vigor, sometimes at people who were not even involved in protest actions. The police are increasingly unwilling to discuss how force is used against protesters, or what happens to them after they are arrested. An effort is being made to prevent the public from owning batons or anything that resembles them, including large flashlights.
The Atlantic argued on September 1 that Hong Kong’s government and police have lost the trust of the public in a way they crucially avoided during the 2014 democracy movement, although the early warning signs were there.
Part of the problem is that “Hong Kong police now receive training from mainland Chinese agencies,” and have adopted the Chinese tendency to refuse to admit wrongdoing, often to a plainly ludicrous degree. The government miscalculated the determination of the protesters early on.
Baton thrashings that were meant to intimidate protesters stiffened their resolve instead, reinforcing their sense that the honest and competent government inherited from Britain is gone.