Hong Kong police struggle with recruitment as more quit force

Police manning a road block before local residents arrived at Chun Yeung estate in Hong Kong to begin their 14 days of quarantine on March 4. Hong Kong officers face a unique challenge as they battle the pandemic amid simmering social discontent, wit
Police manning a road block before local residents arrived at Chun Yeung estate in Hong Kong to begin their 14 days of quarantine on March 4. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Signs of attrition raise concern as city deals with virus outbreak after months of protests

HONG KONG • Hong Kong's police force is showing signs of attrition with resignations increasing and recruitment declining as the city deals with a coronavirus outbreak after months of sometimes violent anti-government protests.

From June last year, when the city's protests erupted against a China-backed extradition Bill, to February, a total of 446 police officers quit the force, an increase of 38 per cent from a year earlier.

The police recruited 766 people in the period, down from 1,341 and far fewer than the target of more than 1,800.

"I am one of the 446," said Ms Cathy Yau, who left the force after the protests began and was later elected as a district councillor.

She said that while the police resignations represent a small percentage of the total number of officers, they point to the potential for a "manpower problem" if the causes are not addressed.

The security bureau last week disclosed the information in a written reply to lawmakers in budget deliberations, adding that it included "resignations during training, early retirement, family and personal reasons".

The police press office said it has been adopting a "proactive recruitment strategy to attract high-calibre candidates" and accepts applications all year round.

"Recruitment varies every year depending on the overall social environment, such as economic and labour market needs," the press office said in an e-mail. "The force will regularly review the recruitment strategy in the light of the prevailing situation."

Police across the globe are resorting to special measures in the fight against the virus - from drone patrols to enforcing social distancing with long-handled giant pliers.

 
 

Hong Kong officers, though, face a unique challenge as they battle the pandemic amid simmering social discontent, with protesters demanding, among other things, meaningful elections and an independent inquiry into police abuses.

"An independent inquiry is a must," said Ms Yau. "Because of the protests, the popularity of the police has plunged."

Results of a survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute released in December showed public satisfaction with the police had plummeted to the lowest level since 1997, when the institute began comparable polling.

In a ranking out of 100, with zero representing very dissatisfied, the police scored 35.34, compared with 62.48 a year earlier. The poll interviewed 1,062 people by phone between Nov 21 and 26.

While the government has banned gatherings of groups of more than four in a bid to stem the spread of the virus, it has not shut down the protests entirely.

Last week, pro-democracy activists including Mr Jimmy Sham marched in groups of four to Chief Executive Carrie Lam's residence to protest against her pay rise and demand an unemployment subsidy.

About 120 members of a regional anti-riot squad were put into quarantine earlier this month after a 46-year-old policeman in the West Kowloon unit was confirmed to be infected with the virus.

 
 

Only four officers in the city's force of more than 30,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

Hong Kong reported 11 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, bringing the total to about 1,000.

The security bureau said two auxiliary forces are working with retired volunteers in fighting the outbreak, while other agencies are also participating in spot checks of people under quarantine.

Tasks carried out by auxiliary forces include assisting Hong Kong residents who are outside the territory, setting up and operating quarantine centres, providing transfer services for suspected cases and helping the health authorities enforce quarantines.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline 'HK police struggle with recruitment as more quit force'. Print Edition | Subscribe