Macho cop needs to regain public trust

Editorial | Mary Ma 5 Nov 2019

Police commissioner-designate Chris Tang Ping-keung did something on Sunday that the incumbent Stephen Lo Wai-chung hadn't - he personally went down to the "battlefields" to lead his men in dispersing crowds of protesters at various locations on Hong Kong Island.

Tang's dramatic "parachuting" into the thick of the action drew cheers from his fellow officers and cast an unflattering chiaroscuro on Lo, who is regarded by many a policeman as being too "dovish," although that may be a description opposition politicians will surely reject given the escalating level of force used by the police.

Lo, who was due to retire last year and asked to stay on for another year, will step down on November 18.

In a police vest, Tang took off his gas mask and helmet and put a truncheon into a holder after a so-called operational "sweep," surprising his cops in the frontlines.

In one fell swoop, he may have established for himself a macho image as the kind of leader who would charge forward together with his soldiers - a common practice among warrior emperors in Chinese history.

The interjection will, inevitably, cause police officers to compare the Tang with Lo, especially the boost that the alpha cop's appearances in the frontlines have given to morale in the force, which was said to be low.

Tang may have created a strongman image for himself. However, does that mean he will never be a dove if the need arises? Would it be naive to think so?

While it is everybody's wish to see Hong Kong return to normalcy, nobody believes this will happen anytime soon.

However, once this slowmoving political equivalent of Typhoon Hato is over, there will always come a time for rewards and punishments to be handed out, and that will be a different scenario which Tang must handle.

Most urgent of all after the unrest will be the credibility crisis that has been plaguing the police since anti-government protests erupted five months ago.

Senior officers may continue to dismiss criticisms of police brutality at the force's daily press conferences, but they can't possibly erase the images ingrained into the public psyche - no matter whether these are biased or not - following months of protests and crackdown.

Will Tang then be forced to soften his macho image in order to rebuild the force's relationship with the public?

Recent public opinion polls show that any such effort will be an uphill task. There's no denying that while violence by protesters has intensified over time, there has hardly been a change in public opinion toward them and their use of violence.

A major reason for this is that the public views the police as more violent and abusive of their powers, and therefore people are reluctant to condemn the protesters. That is a key concern that Tang will have to address upon taking command.

Also entering the equation will be the Independent Police Complaints Council's making public its findings in a probe into alleged violation of human rights by cops. There may also be that independent inquiry that cannot be discounted that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has hinted at if public dissatisfaction with the IPCC report changes the dynamic.

A host of issues will pop up. After all the tactical responses by the police, the true test for the future commissioner of police may be of his political skills.

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