Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Government Action on Police Complaints Inadequate

The very late Government announcement of a Bill to place the Independent Police Complaints Council on a statutory basis is a step in the right direction, but it will not be enough to reform the police complaints system.

The Government has also said it will implement recommendations in a report of a review of the workings of the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO). This contains some useful recommendations. In particular the proposal that it should be a disciplinary offence to "tip off" a police officer that he or she is under investigation is to be welcomed. It is also good that time limits are to be introduced for CAPO investigations and that extra resources are to be allocated. However the report reveals a shocking state of affairs. Delays in dealing with complaints are so long at the moment that a complainant has to wait 6 months for an identification parade to pick out an officer suspected of wrongdoing. The measures proposed, like the new Bill, will not themselves be enough to put right the serious problems affecting the police complaints system.

In January the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor presented the Governor with a detailed paper which showed that in Hong Kong "unlike in some other countries such as the United Kingdom" the courts often accept that persons who say they were beaten up by the police may be telling the truth. Innocent people are wrongly charged as a result of forced confessions and guilty people go free because the fact that they have been beaten means that their confessions cannot be relied on by the courts. Stamping out this type of behaviour by the police requires a fundamental change in the culture of CAPO.

Reform of the complaints system is in everyone's interest including that of the police themselves. A credible complaints system boosts confidence in the police and encourages police/public cooperation. But to be credible it must be independent. At present the police investigate themselves and bend over backwards to protect their own colleagues from findings against them. At the very least CAPO should have an independent civilian head to oversee its operations and make sure that proper impartial standards are applied in investigating and deciding on complaints.

The Government has published a study showing that in some other advanced countries there is no independent police complaints system. However this study is seriously flawed. It does not consider the United Kingdom, but instead relies on the absence of an independent element in Japan, a country with unique circumstances. It does not recognise that the importance of an independent element is something which has been realised in recent years, although it does mention that in Queensland, Australia, where the independent element is very popular with the general public, it was introduced after a massive police corruption scandal. An independent element is a safeguard against scandals, and a safeguard of impartiality. The need for it in Hong Kong is urgent.

A further useful safeguard against malpractice in police stations would be the introduction of lay observers, respected local community leaders permitted to visit police stations at random. This system has worked successfully in parts of Britain for many years and has done much to boost public confidence in the fairness of the police.

The Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor is renewing its campaign for reform in this area. We are requesting urgent meetings with the Governor and the Secretary for Security, and we will be submitting a report to the United Nations. We will also be publicising in Hong Kong and abroad some of the most serious cases of badly investigated complaints.

If the complaints system is not properly reformed, the risk of police behaviour deteriorating after the transfer of sovereignty is high. This in turn affects Hong Kong's stability and prosperity. The Monitor will be bringing this problem to the attention of the major trading partners of the future Special Administrative Region.

1996/1997 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor