HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong's vaunted police force is facing a crisis of confidence and leadership amid the city's worsening political tensions, according to serving and retired officers, politicians and security analysts.
The force is struggling to cope amid haphazard decision-making, worsening morale and anger among rank-and-file officers that they are taking the public heat for government unpopularity, they warned.
"The lower ranks are feeling lost and confused," said one retired officer who remains in close touch with former colleagues. "There is clearly a lack of leadership at key moments, and a sense that there is not enough support from the government and that is having an impact on commanders."
A police statement to Reuters did not respond directly to questions about morale and concerns among officers, but said"violent protests seriously undermine the rule of law".
"The police, with the mission of upholding the law of Hong Kong, would definitely stand at the forefront to maintain public safety and order," the statement said.
As the street-level face of the government during protests, police say they are easy targets for public rage, but protesters say they have used excessive force at times and their surveillance tactics are heavy-handed.
Britain handed the global financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that its wide freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest, would be maintained.
Huge street protests last month against a bill to allow people to be sent for trial in mainland China have evolved into almost daily demonstrations.
Though the city's government insists the bill is now effectively dead, activists continue to demand that it is formally scrapped, and are also calling for independent inquiries into police actions, democratic reforms and the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Two initially peaceful protests at the weekend degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding riot police and activists, one in a suburban shopping mall crowded with Sunday shoppers.
The fights followed larger outbreaks of violence between police and protesters in central Hong Kong last month, with police forcing back activists with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds.
Thousands surrounded the police's headquarters a few days later, trapping senior force brass and junior officers inside the building for several hours.
Another senior serving officer said the fact that there was no apparent end in sight to Hong Kong's political tensions was further fuelling uncertainty across the 30,000-strong force.
"We are in uncharted waters....no one knows where this is going," he said.
A police union covering some 20,000 junior officers wrote to force chiefs this week to seek fresh guarantees their safety and mental health would be protected. Officers should not be deployed to dangerous situations unless management had"confidence in the conditions, including tactics and equipment", the letter said.
Beyond a small core of activists who are increasingly prepared to fight police with umbrellas, hard hats and street furniture, some officers are expressing shock at the verbal abuse they are facing during even small, peaceful gatherings.
In recent days, Reuters witnesses have seen groups of police routinely sworn at and cursed by commuters, with some calling them "black dogs". Others have chased away plainclothes officers taking photographs.
A Wikipedia page on the force was apparently hacked this week, with the phrase "black dogs" inserted.
It marks a swift change, with Hong Kong police long priding themselves on being "Asia's finest" given the city's international reputation for public safety and order, and strong working relationships with foreign police agencies.
After battling leftist rioting in the 1960s and institutionalised corruption in the 1970s, force chiefs worked hard to improve training and boost its reputation for professionalism.
Veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To said he was deeply concerned at the worsening tensions between the police and the public.
Mr To said he was aware that many police felt angry they were"shouldering the blame" for the incompetence of the government.
He was worried too that public anger towards law enforcers had reached a level never before seen in the city.
"This a very worrying turn of events and if the government cannot solve things politically, then they should give clear guidance to the police," said Mr To.
Mr Steve Vickers, a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who now runs a risk consultancy, said it was critical that force morale be sustained and improved "so that they can have confidence that they will not be 'thrown under a bus' by Mrs Carrie Lam's administration should they take necessary firmer action."
He said the government should allow the police to use tear-gas more freely so they can disperse violent groups more safely than using baton charges.
"Batons and hand-to-hand fighting always results in serious injury," he said.
Mrs Lam's office did not immediately respond to Reuters' questions.
If tensions continued to worsen and Hong Kong police struggled to maintain order, some foreign security analysts believed Beijing could be tempted to deploy the mainland's paramilitary People's Armed Police to Hong Kong.
While neither governments had any appetite to deploy locally-based Chinese People's Liberation Army troops, the PAP could be an interim measure, they said.
The PAP is a dedicated anti-riot force that is now under the sole command of the China's Central Military Commission and has units based across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, according to Chinese media reports.
The Chinese Defence Ministry did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment.
Mr To, the lawmaker, said he believed deploying the PAP would still be a too dramatic move and would not be acceptable to either the Hong Kong police or the public.