Hong Kong police watchdog does not have powers and resources to cope with scale of protests, say Independent Police Complaints Council’s expert advisers

Alvin Lum

Hong Kong’s police watchdog lacks the powers and resources to meet the demands of investigating the force’s conduct during protests, according to an international expert group.

The Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) should be given investigatory powers to subpoena documents and summon witnesses, said the five-member panel appointed to advise the body.

The group said the nature of the protests and delays in gathering the facts justified upgrading the IPCC in line with equivalent bodies based in jurisdictions with a similar legal system to Hong Kong’s.

Complaints against police at protests on July 1, which marks the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, are being examined in the IPCC investigation. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Allegations of excessive force by police at protests, and the mob attack at Yuen Long railway station, are being probed by the IPCC, a statutory body set up to observe, monitor and review complaints against police.

The Independent Expert Panel said they had “analysed IPCC capability to conduct a rigorous inquiry of the policing of protests in Hong Kong”.

That review had “indicated a shortfall in IPCC powers, capacity and independent investigative capability necessary to match the scale of events and the standards required of an international police watchdog operating in a city that values freedoms and rights”.

Panel chairman Denis O’Connor, the former British chief inspector of constabulary, said: “[The IPCC] lacks the independent investigative capacity as we would expect to find in a body seeking to exercise oversight of the police.

“In the absence of establishing some facts that people can actually relate to, then rumours or innuendos or fake news are likely to continue and proliferate. I can’t imagine that is good for Hong Kong.”

However, it is uncertain whether the government would agree – and would be able to act quickly enough – to amend the law to strengthen the IPCC, which requires the legislature’s approval.

Critics also said such changes would likely face opposition from the embattled police force.

But O’Connor said even without new powers of investigation, the facts gathered by the IPCC, and a record of those who had refused to contribute, could still be used if a fuller independent inquiry demanded by protesters and others was launched.

“We don’t preclude an independent inquiry at all,” he said. “If there is to be an independent inquiry, it could hit the ground running.”

Report on police conduct may be out by year’s end: chief secretary

The IPCC reviews complaints against individual officers, and police operations more generally, based on case files or internal documents passed on by the force.

The current investigation focuses on six key dates – protests on June 9 and 12, July 1, August 1 and 31, as well as the attack at Yuen Long railway station on July 21.

One of the most controversial issues relates to identifying officers. IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh promised to “go into this deeply” in the preliminary report, which is expected to be published in early 2020.

Hong Kong government ‘will consider’ commission of inquiry into police handling of protests

It would also look into the use of San Uk Ling Holding Centre, which is located near the border. Some officers have been accused of harassing protesters held there or delaying their access to treatment.

Police commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung and his expected successor Chris Tang Ping-keung have both pledged to cooperate fully with the study.

The IPCC has said there were still gaps in completing a “coherent set of facts” through its inquiries that the public could have trust in.

But it has not referred to any specific instances where police were unhelpful, with Neoh saying it would be wrong to say they had faced a “brick wall” in gathering evidence, despite the initial delay since June.

O’Connor cited the Yuen Long MTR station incident as an example where the full picture remained unclear.

The force has come under fire for taking about half an hour to arrive on the scene, where a group of white-clad men had indiscriminately attacked protesters returning from a mass rally, as well as other passengers.

Police said their capacity was stretched because of protests on Hong Kong Island. Local district councillors said they had warned the district commander about the threat of an attack the day before.

“It’s complex story ... we are still some way back from getting a good set of witnesses [giving testimony] on what happened there.” O’Connor said.

“Up to this point, there is only limited opportunity to try to validate people’s different accounts.

“The longer it takes as this disorder continues, the more problematic [it is] in our view.”

Police watchdog says force turned down requests for information

Neoh said it might only be possible to expand investigatory powers in the long term, but added he reserved the right to include the extra powers as part of the recommendations to the government.

The IPCC’s priority for now, Neoh said, was to hire more solicitors and barristers to “up its game”.

In response, a spokesman said the government would keep a close watch on the outcome of the IPCC’s study.

“We will study all recommendations carefully and thoroughly before deciding on any follow-ups,” he said, while adding the fact-finding study due in December was by no means the final report.

The Junior Police Officers' Association has not responded to the proposal.

Lawmaker Kenneth Leung, who previously served on IPCC’s governing council, said the suggestion of new investigation powers had come too late.

“Giving the IPCC investigation powers would involve a change in ordinance, but that cannot back date to cover past incidents, it’s only a reform for the future,” Leung said.

“Only a commission of inquiry now would have those powers ... to look into wider political discourse, including the consultation process of the extradition law, what role has the chief executive played, and police operations.”

Aside from the uncertainty associated with amending the IPCC Ordinance, which could take up two years, Leung said police had strongly opposed similar proposals about a decade ago, when the IPCC became a statutory body.

The expert panel said it “remains to be seen whether a light touch, oversight body like the IPCC can make sufficient progress to produce any decisive contribution”.

It added there may be a “compelling case” for a “deeper more comprehensive inquiry ... by an independent body with requisite powers”.

Need for national security law in Hong Kong ‘becoming urgent’

Hong Kong has been in the grip of often-violent protests since June, roused by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, which would have allowed for extradition to mainland China. It has since developed into a wider anti-government movement.

One of the demands of the movement, as well as from a wide array of observers, is for a commission of inquiry led by a judge to investigate the handling of the protests.

But that has been rejected by the government in favour of the IPCC probe.

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