Watchdog panel may need more clout to ensure thorough probe of how Hong Kong police handled protests, head of foreign expert team says

Alvin Lum

An international panel of experts is considering whether Hong Kong’s police watchdog needs additional powers to conduct a thorough probe of police handling of anti-government protests.

The five-man team is concerned about whether the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) has the capability to obtain all the information it needs about police operations, said panel chairman Denis O’Connor, a Cambridge University criminologist and former British chief inspector of constabulary.

“It’s an important question for the watchdog, whether it wants or needs to be intrusive,” said O’Connor, who reviewed British police operations during the deadly London riots of 2011.

Although the Hong Kong police force has pledged to cooperate fully with the IPCC, critics have argued that the 27-member watchdog is toothless and cannot insist that police produce internal documents it may ask for.

Riot police monitor the movement of protesters in front of Mong Kok Police Station on Friday. Photo: Edmond So

O’Connor said no profession liked to reveal its “moments of errors”, but in the United Kingdom, police officers had to cooperate with a watchdog review and produce logbooks or records requested.

“I don’t think it’s the job of the police to like their watchdog,” he said, adding that in the UK, a team reviewing something like riots will get the information it demands.

Police officer fires gun, water cannon used for first time on protesters in Hong Kong

“It’s important for the IPCC to get good advice, to be as strong as it can be as part of the solution. Let me just say this, what’s going on is much bigger than police and the IPCC.”

Aside from O'Connor, the others appointed to advise the IPCC as it investigates police handling of protests since June 9 are the former head of Ontario’s police watchdog, Gerry McNeilly, former judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court Michael Adams, head of the police conduct authority in New Zealand Justice Colin Doherty, and scholar of crowd behaviour Clifford Stott of Keele University in Britain.

Protesters have demanded an independent inquiry into police handling of anti-government demonstrations. Photo: Felix Wong

They have been in Hong Kong for five days visiting protests sites, including the Legislative Council and MTR stations, and have met police commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung. 

The appointment of the Canadian on the team, McNeilly, has raised eyebrows because of a controversy over his actions when his watchdog probed allegations of abuse against a Toronto police officer.

A court found McNeilly undermined the integrity of the investigation by setting aside his team’s finding of serious misconduct, following undisclosed “backchannel chats” with the police, Canadian media reported early this year.

The court set aside the watchdog’s findings, calling his communication with the police “inappropriate and unfair”. Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which McNeilly led until recently, is appealing.

Critics in Hong Kong have questioned his appointment to the panel of expert advisors, but the IPCC declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeal in Canada.

The watchdog said in a statement on Friday that the expert panel would only comment on police operations and make proposals, without going into individual complaints.

“The IPCC believes each member of the expert panel will objectively and fairly provide his recommendations,” it said.

Riot police storm into a train to chase protesters at Prince Edward station on August 31. Photo: Handout

O’Connor would only say that he himself has made mistakes, and that it was up to McNeilly and the IPCC to respond. The Post has reached out to McNeilly for comments.

O’Connor comes with experience of reviewing police conduct during the London riots, which were triggered by the death of a man shot by police as they tried to arrest him on suspicion of having a handgun.

Five people died and extensive damage was done to businesses and homes, as the riots spread and 13,500 to 15,000 people went on a rampage for days.

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O’Connor later recommended that the British police force change its tactics to adapt to fast-moving criminal attacks, and consider scaling up the use of water cannon and rubber bullets.

He said the events in London, which lasted only a few days, were different to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. He declined to offer an assessment of the police handling of protests since June.

“I wasn’t born in Hong Kong,” he said. “I feel something here, but I don’t feel the same way that you do.”

Noting that different places have their own levels of tolerance to the use of force, he said a consensus is needed to gauge what is acceptable against the people’s exercise of freedom.

His team will look at how the IPCC assesses public sentiment against the police, and what caused any change of sentiment.

“Back in the UK, police are the people, the people are the police,” he said. “The public’s support, satisfaction and understanding matter enormously. A watchdog needs to independently tap into that.”

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