In Hong Kong crackdown, police repeatedly broke their own rules — and faced no consequences

Leaked law-enforcement manuals contain guidelines often ignored in confrontations with protesters.

HONG KONG ­— As violence escalated in Hong Kong over recent months, senior officials repeatedly ruled out a full inquiry into increasingly aggressive police tactics toward pro-democracy demonstrators.

Independent scrutiny would be an “injustice” and a “tool for inciting hatred” against the force, commissioner Chris Tang said recently, echoing the refusal of Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed leader, to meet one of protesters’ key demands. A police spokesman emphasized that the force is adhering to “strict” guidelines in policing the protests, “benchmarked against international standards.”

A review of more than 100 pages of police guidelines and training manuals obtained by The Washington Post details these protocols surrounding use of force. The guidelines, however, were often ignored by police, who have misused chemical agents and used excessive force against protesters not resisting, according to experts in policing who examined dozens of incidents in consultation with Post journalists and in comparison with the police protocols.

The use of force by police is well documented in video of the demonstrations since they began in June. The Post created a database of 65 police use-of-force incidents through mid-November, verified for authenticity by a team of law students at the University of Hong Kong, to form the basis of the investigation. The students are part of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, trained to geolocate and analyze open-source videos.

The contrast between the police tactics and the rules set down in the manuals — most of which have not been made public before — has potential importance in any resolution as protests spill into the new year.

Concerns over a lack of police accountability underpin the sentiments fueling the unrest — growing fears that Hong Kong’s rule of law is being eroded as Beijing tightens its grip over the territory. Many in the city’s pro-democracy camp view the Hong Kong police as a means for China’s Communist Party to suppress unrest without resorting to direct intervention that could provoke an international response.

A police spokesman said no officer has been suspended from duty in connection with “any incident relating to the protests,” a step taken when an officer is being investigated for serious wrongdoing. No officer has been charged or prosecuted over protest-related actions.

Tear gas: Police fire tear gas into an enclosed subway station. Tear gas has been used — about 16,000 rounds total — in every district in Hong Kong and in dense residential areas. International standards state that it should be used only in open areas with clear exit points.

Tear gas can cause breathing difficulty, nausea, vomiting and other respiratory and digestive issues. (Video: The Associated Press)

What the guidelines say: The Hong Kong police force’s Police Tactical Unit (PTU) have primarily been responding to the protests. The tactical unit’s training manual shows that police are aware of the risks. Tear gas "not only affects the target [but] can also spread to nearby and even relatively far-off places and people," it says.

"When using tear gas in business districts with densely packed offices, for example, the problem becomes more severe because of central air conditioning systems in offices and even [subway] ventilation fans in some places," the manual adds, encouraging officers to use alternative dispersal methods.

Expert analysis: Lawrence Ho, an expert in the Hong Kong police force at the Education University of Hong Kong, said that use of tear gas in enclosed spaces almost certainly violated guidelines and changed how the public viewed the police. Their actions "indiscriminately affected all passengers, [including] children, infants, elders and housewives," he said.

Police response: In a news conference, a police spokesman justified the incident as a response to violent behavior from protesters. "Our consideration then was to stop the protesters’ radical behavior as soon as possible," he added.

Authorities point to an existing complaints mechanism, the Independent Police Complaints Council, that has been tasked with reviewing police behavior in relation to the protests. In response to questions from The Post, a spokesman for the police said their Complaints Against Police Office has received more than 1,400 complaints ranging from misconduct to assault, all of which “are being or have been investigated” with the independent council.

But experts say it is ill-equipped to handle the magnitude of allegations and falls short of international standards.

A culture of impunity now pervades the force, according to a current and a former officer, emboldening riot police to disregard their training or lie when asked in official reports to justify excessive force.

“The commanders are too afraid to upset the front-line officers, so if their behavior is not too far away from the guidelines, then they’ll just close one eye and ignore it,” said a 27-year-old officer. The incidents captured on video represent a fraction of the wrongdoings, he said.

“I’m waiting for the penalty against those officers,” he added.

An officer who left the force recently, dissatisfied with police conduct, added: “All those disciplinary rules are just being ignored now. The higher-ups are afraid to use them.”

Both the current and former officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

Water cannon: On Oct. 20, police used a water cannon to spray a blue-dyed solution, which causes a stinging sensation on exposed skin. Water cannons were first used in August.

Among the group in the video was Jeremy Tam, a pro-democracy lawmaker who arrived about 20 minutes prior. "We weren’t demonstrating, we didn’t yell any slogan or anything like that, [we had] no gear with us," Tam said. He was briefly hospitalized and said he experienced a burning sensation for at least 24 hours. (Video: Jeremy Tam via Storyful & Timothy McLaughlin for The Washington Post)

What the guidelines say: In May, before the protests, Hong Kong’s security bureau said police would only consider deploying the cannons "in situations of widespread or significant public disorder" where there has been serious injury or loss of life, widespread destruction of property or the occupation of major roads.

Police said they would provide warnings before using the cannons, and would only discharge water against "violent charging acts" and "will not target individuals." Authorities have not detailed the operational guidelines of the water cannon or the chemical makeup of the solution inside, saying only that it is similar to pepper spray.

Expert analysis: Four experts who analyzed separate incidents where a water cannon was used along the same road that day all considered its use to violate the principles expressed by Hong Kong police. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician at Physicians for Human Rights, said the blue dye is "shaming and cruel" and should be banned.

Michael Power, a South African public interest lawyer and director at ALT Advisory, said in this instance use of the water cannon "appears to violate the principles of necessity and proportionality and is thus unlawful, as the people standing on the sidewalk do not appear to pose any legitimate threat."

Police response: Police apologized for inadvertently hitting the mosque but maintained that their operation was to disperse a "very dangerous" crowd.

The indiscriminate use of force has led Hong Kongers to tolerate protesters’ increasingly violent reprisals against police. As demonstrators resorted to gasoline bombs and bricks, polls showed that far more people blamed the government and police for the worsening situation.

“You can look anywhere in the world, and be very much drawn to the conclusion that accountability is key,” said Gary White, a retired police officer with the Police Service of Northern Ireland who now consults on conflict management. This includes his own Northern Ireland, he adds, where the early police response to peaceful protests strengthened the hand of radicals in the 1970s and ’80s.

“If the police can get away with excessive and inappropriate use of force, and they are never held to account for it, what do you think is going to be the response from the people who are subject to that force by the police?” White said.

A police spokesman, in detailed comments emailed to The Post, said it is the “escalation of violence by radical protesters” that has compelled the authorities to use force.

“When situations such as illegally blocking roads, paralyzing traffic, unlawful assembly, wanton destruction of public and private property and violent attacks on people merely holding different views occur that seriously threatens public order and public safety, the Police are duty bound to take appropriate action to ensure public safety and restore public order,” the spokesman said.

Weakening accountability

The Post reviewed a full version of the Hong Kong Police Force’s internal use-of-force guidelines, the Force Procedures Manual, verified by two police officers and two lawyers. The document forms part of the Police General Orders, the rules governing police conduct.

Most of the general orders are public, but Chapter 29 — which addresses the use of force — is not. These orders are mandatory, the document states, and “noncompliance will make an officer liable to disciplinary action.”

An excerpt from Chapter 29 of the use of the Hong Kong Police Department's Force Procedures manual.

The manual includes a table, known as FPM 29-02, explaining how police can apply increasing force to meet the resistance offered by a subject.

These rules were loosened ahead of protests coinciding with China’s national day on Oct. 1 to remove a requirement that “officers will be accountable for their own actions,” according to Hong Kong authorities. The revised guidelines also lowered the threshold for lethal use of force.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong police force in comments to The Post said it is “not appropriate to discuss use-of-force guidelines, as operational details are involved.” But, he added, these guidelines are “regularly revised.”

“The last regular revision, which was posted onto our internal website in late September, was done to provide more clarity to front-line officers on choosing the appropriate level of force when faced with different threats,” the spokesman said, acknowledging that the threshold for lethal use of force was lowered.

The principles, he added, “remain unchanged — that only the minimum level of force necessary to achieve a lawful purpose shall be used, and once the purpose has been achieved, the use of force shall cease.”

The Hong Kong Police Force's protocols around use of force, known as Chapter 29 of the Police General Orders, detail what options are available to officers faced with different levels of resistance from an individual.

These rules were loosened ahead of protests coinciding with China’s national day on Oct. 1 to remove a requirement that “officers will be accountable for their own actions,” according to Hong Kong authorities. The revised guidelines also lowered the threshold for lethal use of force.

Melissa Hamilton, an expert on policing and criminal justice at the University of Surrey in Britain, noted that the guidelines appeared to leave too much wiggle room.

The document instead “indicates it is up to the officer to determine a reasonable level of force,” Hamilton said. “This makes it more subjective and, thus, discounts accountability for being overly sensitive, reckless, or intentionally engaging in unreasonable force.”

Pepper balls: On Aug. 11, police shot pepper balls — a nonlethal irritant — from close range at a group of protesters who were descending into the subway station. They then pulled some protesters onto the ground, beating them with batons and making arrests. (Video: Apple Daily HK)

Isa, an 18-year-old who gave only her first name for fear of retribution, said she was trying to return home via the subway when she encountered the police.

"I felt I was being pulled down by them, and then they beat me up," she said. "I was overpowered by them."

What the guidelines say: A Hong Kong police officer familiar with the weapon said there are no restrictions on close-range use of the pepper-ball gun. The use-of-force guidelines say it should only be used when an officer encounters "defensive resistance" from a subject.

Expert analysis: Lucila Santos, program director at the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations who helped compile a report on less-than-lethal crowd-control weapons, was concerned that the incident occurred in an enclosed space, and with protesters on a descending escalator — increasing the "risk of serious, unnecessary injury."

Santos also pointed out that Hong Kong police guidelines say pepper balls can only be used when an officer is faced with defensive resistance, which she said she thinks was not occurring in this case, as the protesters appeared to be trying to leave.

"The police actions show that it produces panic and chaos [and] looks disproportionate and unprofessional," she said.

Police response: Police response: Police initially defended the use of force in this incident, but said they would review the case.

In addition, The Post obtained teaching manuals from the Hong Kong Police College outlining how recruits should apply force and resistance when in the field, and use their service weapons and batons.

The Post also reviewed sections of the Police Tactical Unit training manual, which provides guidance on the use of crowd-control equipment such as tear gas, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets and pepper spray.

Police Tactical Unit training materials state that the head, neck & throat are considered "lethal target zones" for projectiles like rubber bullets.

The tactical unit comprises the riot police officers who primarily have handled the response to the protests. Two officers from the unit who attended training in 2018 said their instructors had begun a course on tear gas by stating that “you’ll probably never use this in your time as a Hong Kong police officer.”

Rubber bullets: Veby Mega Indah, 39, an Indonesian journalist working for Suara Hong Kong News, was covering the protests on Sept. 29. Dressed in protective gear and a high-visibility vest, she was standing with other journalists on a footbridge, live-streaming, when riot police began to retreat down a staircase, away from protesters. (Video: The Education University of Hong Kong Students’ Union)

One officer fired back toward the journalists. The projectile, thought to be a type of rubber bullet known as a baton round, shattered Veby’s protective goggles. She was blinded in her right eye.

"I tried to keep recording, live-streaming, and then I fell down. I thought it was going to be my end," she said in an interview.

Veby and her lawyer have tried to obtain the name of the officer who fired at her, to move forward with legal action, but have been rebuffed.

What the guidelines say: The tactical unit’s training manual states that projectiles should be aimed at the center of someone’s body, a "less lethal target zone," rather than head, neck or throat. The use-of-force guidelines say projectiles such as baton rounds should only be used when a subject physically assaults an officer.

Expert analysis: Power, the South African public interest lawyer and director at ALT Advisory, reviewed four separate videos of the event. He said the incident was not clearly visible from the footage, but "there does not appear to be any justifiable reason for the discharge," and believes it is unlikely that the use of force was within police guidelines.

In one of the videos, "the discharge appears arbitrary and it may be unlawful as it was seemingly aimed as the head, face or neck of the target," Power said.

Police response: A police spokesman said after the incident that officers had no intention of hurting a reporter. The police told The Post they could not comment further on the investigation.

A toothless watchdog

The Post’s database of 65 use-of-force incidents includes videos from reporters, local broadcast news outlets, student journalists and others between June and November. The incidents were chosen to encapsulate every crowd-control tool used by Hong Kong police, and to include police responses to both peaceful and violent protests. The incidents were evenly spread between each month. The videos offer a snapshot of police behavior in responding to the unrest.

The Post consulted nine policing experts from around the world, including Argentina, Israel, South Africa, Hong Kong, the United States and Britain, who analyzed the videos against the force’s guidelines and international standards, specifically, the United Nations’ guidance on the use of less-than-lethal weapons published in August.

The Hong Kong police college's resistance control training syllabus, compiled a manual, describes the correct use of a police baton in striking an offender.

The experts, who each reviewed a different set of videos, said they thought that Hong Kong police went against their rules in about 70 percent of the incidents reviewed. In 8 percent of incidents, the experts said the use of force could be justified under police guidelines. The remaining incidents were not sufficiently clear to reach a conclusion.

Experts noted, however, that videos capturing police use of force do not always illustrate the full picture of events around a specific incident. Their analysis was based only on the database The Post created.

Where available, the University of Hong Kong team found corroborating videos from different angles, and longer clips capturing more of the incident.

Batons: On Sept. 29, police were deployed to arrest protesters participating in what they say was an illegal assembly. Demonstrators were occupying roads and building barricades to thwart a police charge. Some protesters were throwing petrol bombs at police, and others were charging at them with umbrellas. (Video: CampusTV/University of Hong Hong Students’ Union)

The video shows a young demonstrator surrounded by at least four riot police. One of the police officers is repeatedly hitting the protester in the legs, while another police officer presses the protester’s head and neck to the ground. The protester, who tries to scream his name out to journalists recording the event, is briefly obscured from view by police shields.

What the guidelines say: The tactical unit’s manual states that police using their batons should "never strike the head, neck or back" and "never strike targets who are leaving. turn their backs on officers or are prostrate on the ground." Officers should "only strike muscles" and "never strike bone," it adds.

According to use-of-force guidelines, an officer must report to senior commanders if he has hit someone with a baton, either intentionally or accidentally. Guidelines add that only "minimum force necessary" may be used and must "cease" once the officer’s purpose is achieved.

Expert analysis: Edward Maguire, an expert on protest policing at Arizona State University, said the video is missing "important context" including what could have warranted the arrest.

However, he added, "the level of force used against him appears excessive, particularly the officers striking him with a baton."

"This reminds me of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles in 1992," he said. "The level of force used here appears to violate the HKPF Policy Manual’s provision that only the minimum force necessary to achieve the purpose may be used."

Police response: A Hong Kong police spokesman did not respond to Post questions on this specific video, but said "in general, many media and online reports use short and edited videos that are taken out of context and fail to show the full picture of how radical protesters’ use of extreme violence" necessitated a police response. Police officers, they added, need to "obtain swift and full compliance" of an arrested person to guarantee their safety.

Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, has urged the public to trust the Independent Police Complaints Council to address police behavior. Yet the council — whose chairman Lam appointed in 2018 — has no power to call witnesses. Between 2010 and 2018, the council recommended criminal proceedings against only one police officer.

Pepper spray: The incident on Oct. 31 shows one of several videos where pepper spray — known in police documents as Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) foam — was used against people walking away from the police. (Video: Courtesy of Rachel Cheung)

What the guidelines say: Chapter 29 of the police procedures states that OC foam can be considered for use against a person "involved or likely to become involved in violent" behavior. Guidelines also state that anyone affected by the foam should be given fresh air and "large amounts of water" to "prevent undue injury and suffering."

"We were taught not to use tear gas or pepper spray if there is a peaceful protest, unless a protester is resisting during arrest," said the 27-year-old front-line officer. "Everything has changed now, as you can see."

Senior commanders were less stringent about documenting use of pepper spray compared with tear gas, rubber bullets or other projectiles, he said, leading to its abuse as a crowd-control tool.

Expert analysis: Neil Jarman, chairman of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ panel on freedom of peaceful assembly and the expert who reviewed the video, noted that the person hit with pepper spray was both "peaceful and moving away from the police."

The instance, he added, appears to be "disproportionate and excessive," exacerbated by the fact that officers in uniform "do not have any visible form of identification and therefore can act with impunity."

Police response: A Hong Kong police spokesman did not respond to Post questions on this specific video, but said "in general, many media and online reports use short and edited videos that are taken out of context and fail to show the full picture of how radical protesters’ use of extreme violence" necessitated a police response. Use of force, police say, is a "last resort" and used "only to achieve a specific purpose."

In September, Lam said she had formed a five-member international expert panel to provide advice on the council’s findings, which are due in the coming weeks.

In a November progress report, those international experts warned of limitations in the scope and powers of the council inquiry. They said on Dec. 11 that they were standing aside, citing disagreements with the council over the scope of the exercise.

“We ultimately concluded that a crucial shortfall was evident in the powers, capacity and independent investigative capability of IPCC,” the experts said.

Gunshots: Early on Nov. 11, protesters began obstructing roads and disrupting train service as part of a general strike. The incident, in the Sai Wan Ho neighborhood, shows a police officer walking across the road toward a group of masked protesters.

The officer pulls his weapon and grabs one of the masked men, then begins to walk backward while holding the man close to his body. As he retreats, another masked man dressed in black approaches the officer and swats at the officer’s gun. The officer fires, hitting the man in black, later identified as 21-year-old Chow Pak-kwan. The officer fires two more rounds as two others rush toward him. (Video: The Associated Press)

During a news conference, Chow said he thought he might die, and felt blessed to have survived.

Quoting a line from the movie "V for Vendetta," he added: "A man can be shot dead, but ideas are bulletproof."

What the guidelines say: The Hong Kong police use-of-force guidelines were altered in September, allowing officers to use deadly force if they encounter "assault leading to, or relatively likely to lead to, the death or serious bodily injury" of others. In addition, Chapter 29 states that a police officer can discharge a firearm to facilitate the arrest of someone who they think has committed "a serious and violent crime," or to "quell a riot" — but only if "no lesser degree of force can achieve the purpose."

Expert analysis: The University of Surrey’s Hamilton said that the guidelines allow for arguments both ways. Though Chow was not engaged in a deadly force assault, officers — who appear to be isolated in the video — could argue that they felt threatened by the crowd around them more broadly, or that they were suppressing a riot.

"The Hong Kong policies are much more subjective than others, such that the officers’ perceptions at the time might be dispositive, even if unreasonable," Hamilton said.

Hyeyoung Lim, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who also reviewed the video, said she thought the use of force was unjustified.

"Even if I assume something happened prior to the scene that may raise the officer’s adrenaline level, it is obvious that the officer failed to control his feelings," she said.

Police response: At a news conference Nov. 11, police said the officer "believed it was very likely that the revolver would be snatched and the consequences would be disastrous," including "death and casualties." An initial investigation, a police spokesman said, showed that the officer did not deviate from guidelines as he thought he was facing a group rather than an individual. The police added: "We certainly believe our officers did not have bad intentions to hurt anyone," and that they would investigate the case "in depth."

Shibani Mahtani

Shibani Mahtani is the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Washington Post, covering countries that include the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. She joined The Post's foreign desk in 2018 after seven years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Southeast Asia and later in Chicago, where she covered the Midwest.

About this project

Expert analysis for this project was provided by Michael Power, a public interest lawyer and director at ALT Advisory; Melissa Hamilton, a criminal justice expert at the University of Surrey; Lawrence Ho, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong specializing in policing; Rohini Haar, an emergency physician at Physicians for Human Rights; Anne Suciu, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in policing cases and use of less-lethal weapons; Lucila Santos, program coordinator at the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations; Neil Jarman, chairman of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ panel on freedom of peaceful assembly; Edward Maguire, an expert on protest policing at Arizona State University; and Hyeyoung Lim, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Videos were geolocated and verified by a team of law students at the University of Hong Kong, part of a team that works with Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, part of the organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab.

Design and development by Irfan Uraizee. Video editing by Jason Aldag.