The actions of Hong Kong police officers during last year’s civil unrest could have been directly responsible for an increase in violence and the radicalisation of protesters, a British expert on policing has claimed.
Professor Clifford Stott, of Keele University, believes the use of tear gas outside the Legislative Council complex on June 12 last year was a “pivotal moment of psychological change” among protesters, who came to see police as “illegitimate” and “partisan”.
The subsequent “successful occupation of [the Legislative Council building on July 1 was] itself experienced as an important moment of further empowerment for radical protest tactics and identity,” Stott wrote in a 22-page report, which was published on Tuesday in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice.
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Stott, a world-renowned expert in protest policing, was approached by Hong Kong’s Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to help investigate the policing of last year’s protests, but later quit over concerns about the watchdog’s limited power and its ability to conduct a proper inquiry.
The IPCC published its report in May this year, and largely cleared the force of any misconduct.
Stott said the study of the events in Hong Kong was part of wider research into how riots “start, escalate and spread from one location to another”, and the pattern of the social unrest in 2019 was similar to how riots escalated elsewhere in the world.
“Experiences of illegitimate and undifferentiated police action create a psychological unity among previously diverse groups in protest crowds,” he said.
“This appears to have been important in Hong Kong, because aggressive police intervention empowered more direct actions among protesters that police found increasingly unacceptable.
“Over time, this social psychological process fed an increasing sense of police illegitimacy which fuelled the spread of the protests and the escalation of violence.”
The Post has approached police for comment, but in an earlier reply to Stott’s previous criticism of the force, police said they adhered to a strict set of guidelines for the use of force, and any used should be the minimum necessary for achieving a lawful purpose.
It added it was not necessary for officers to use force if there was no violence shown towards them, or other members of the community.
It was in this context of the almost complete collapse of police legitimacy among protesters that radicalisation took place
Professor Clifford Stott
In his report, Stott suggests the police delay in responding to the mob attack on passengers inside Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019, was the final straw for protesters, who saw it as “evidence of deliberate and corrupt collusion between suspected triad members and the police”.
“[The police] incapacity to monitor and respond to obvious threats to public order during the incidents in Yuen Long, in particular, made manifest deeply held suspicions of police collusion with mainland influenced organised crime as a weapon of social control,” he wrote.
“It was in this context of the almost complete collapse of police legitimacy among protesters that radicalisation took place.”
In the study, the professor explored the relationship between crowd behaviour and policing methods during the protests, and drew on interviews with 17 protesters, and reports by other civil groups and the IPCC.
Using behavioural and psychological analysis, the study concluded police actions played a central role in transforming the previously peaceful protests into more violent ones.
The clash between police and protesters at Prince Edward MTR station on August 31, 2019, was one of several “watershed moments”.
Officers were accused of attacking regular commuters while chasing after protesters, but the force has maintained it only targeted radicals who had changed clothes to blend in with passengers.
“This process was not just related to excessive use of force but also, by operating disproportionately … on the escalators and inside the trains of the MTR, the police were seen to flagrantly abuse their bounded authority, powers and position,” Stott wrote.
The study concluded that police tactics “served to legitimise and empower escalating acts of community resistance”, which culminated in the siege at Polytechnic University where the “cycle was broken”.
In an interview with the Post earlier this year, Deputy Commissioner of Police Oscar Kwok Yam-shu questioned Stott’s motives, as he had only been in Hong Kong a few days and did not have access to materials given by police.
The professor attended briefings, a lecture on crowd psychology and discussions with the IPCC team during his stay in Hong Kong, according to Kwok. But the deputy chief said he would still read the report out of public interest when it was released.
“It only concerns me now because he is obviously one of those people whose objective is to undermine the ability of the police force to do its job. If so, he’s getting in the way of us protecting our citizens, that for me is a big deal,” Kwok said at the time.
A spokesman for the Security Bureau said the bureau believed “the IPCC report was based on facts and it was balanced and objective”.
He said: “The government attaches much importance to the recommendations made by IPCC [in the report] and the Security Bureau taskforce is also following up the various recommendations set out in the [IPCC report].
“The police have the statutory duty to maintain public safety and public order in order to protect the life and property of the citizens. Therefore, whenever there are illegal acts, the police shall take appropriate action to restore the peace of the society.
“Regarding reports or views presented by other individuals or groups with different political stances, objectives, or perspectives, that are directed at the police’s statutory duty of combating illegal activities, the Security Bureau has no comment.”