Hong Kong starts standing down riot police as protests fade

A riot police officer patrolling in Hong Kong last December. The police have been maintaining a permanent roster of riot officers after huge and sometimes violent protests raged for seven straight months last year. PHOTO: REUTERS
A riot police officer patrolling in Hong Kong last December. The police have been maintaining a permanent roster of riot officers after huge and sometimes violent protests raged for seven straight months last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • Riot police officers in Hong Kong will begin returning to regular law enforcement duties, such as crime prevention and traffic control, because violent pro-democracy protests have faded, the force said.

The announcement came a day after the force was given a 25 per cent bump in its annual budget by the city's pro-Beijing leadership, including a doubling of its equipment allowance and plans to add another 2,500 officers.

The police have been maintaining a permanent roster of riot officers after huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests raged for seven straight months last year.

The rallies and clashes have since died down, partly due to exhaustion and arrests, but also because of the emergence of the deadly coronavirus.

"Given that large-scale violent protests have declined recently, the police will deploy officers in the anti-riot brigades in stages and with flexibility to reinforce other front-line officers in law enforcement work, including community crime prevention and elimination and traffic control," the police said in a statement yesterday.

Hong Kong's protests were triggered by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, with millions taking to the streets.

As the government dug its heels in and deployed the police to suppress the rallies, the movement morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing, as well as a call for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.

More than 7,000 arrests were made, while the police fired nearly 30,000 crowd-control munitions, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.

Clashes became a weekly and at times daily occurrence, with videos of police beatings and arrests quickly going viral.

Polls show that the city's once revered police are now loathed by significant chunks of the population and officers are routinely heckled and abused.

The police defended their tactics and said they used appropriate force to match hardcore protesters who embraced violence, including arson and hurling petrol bombs, rocks and corrosive liquid.

No police officer has been sanctioned over the protests and the top brass have said no instances of inappropriate force was displayed by their officers.

 
 

The city's police watchdog is investigating the force's handling of the protests but activists accuse the body of being toothless and stacked with government loyalists.

A group of international policing experts stepped down from advising the panel, saying that it had neither the resources nor expertise to do the job properly.

Protesters want a judge to oversee a fully independent inquiry into the police, a demand city leader Carrie Lam and Beijing, as well as the force, have dismissed.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2020, with the headline 'Hong Kong starts standing down riot police as protests fade'. Print Edition | Subscribe