Hong Kong police say giving out batons to off-duty police and setting up WhatsApp channels for the public to report “non-urgent” violence is just a response to the ongoing protests, but the move has sparked concern that it could be abused.

The police explained on Tuesday at their daily press conference that off-duty police officers would be allowed to carry extendable batons to enable them to enforce the law and protect public safety.

Senior officers emphasized that off-duty cops would follow the Police General Orders strictly as the use of batons is regarded as a “use of force”. They also need to show their warrant cards when a situation allows that and to report back on when and how they use the weapon.

Wong Wai-shun, a senior superintendent in operations, said the new measure would help the city to be safer as officers could handle any urgent situation faster. “I believe that this will help build confidence to restore order in the city.”

But police did not disclose how many officers had handed in reports on when they used batons during the months-long protests.

Members of the public have raised concerns, citing a large number of cases from eyewitnesses and news footage during protests over the past three months clearly showing on-duty police threatening to or hitting protesters or passers-by when they liked. They alleged that officers did not follow the Police General Orders strictly.

Some images clearly showed that a number of people and protesters suffered head and upper body injuries after being hit by police and many had to go to hospital. The latest case involved a 17-year-old school boy who suffered head injuries when a group of six to seven police hit him with batons in Tai Po MTR station on September 7.

People fear the situation could get worse if officers are not in police uniform.

James To, the Democratic Party lawmaker and deputy chair of the Legislative Council’s security panel, warned that the move could intensify already high tensions between the community and the police and may lead to more conflict. He asked the force to rethink the new measure, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.

He said an off-duty officer may have disclosed his police identity before using a baton to subdue a student, but for bystanders, it may look like a man attacking the student, which could cause bystanders to intervene.

Icarus Wong from the Civil Rights Observer said he was concerned about monitoring whether off-duty officers use their batons in an appropriate and restrained way, Ming Pao Daily reported. He said if an off-duty officer takes a baton out when he has a dispute with a citizen but does not disclose his police identity, it is difficult for the citizen to file a complaint.

But Gary Chan Hak-kan, a lawmaker from the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who chairs the Legislative Council’s security panel, said he believed the measures could help officers enforce the law. Officers would not use their batons if citizens do not break the law and create disorder.

Executive councilor Ip Kwok-him believed the moves related to police security and self protection. He questioned why radical protesters would be violent toward off-duty officers.

WhatsApp channels

Meanwhile, the police have set up 10 “anti-violence” hotlines on WhatsApp for the public to report “non-urgent” violence anonymously.

The force urged the public to provide intelligence – photos, recordings or videos – about violence to assist them in stopping riots. But they said the hotline is not for general reporting and the officers would not answer incoming calls.

A photo surfaced on Facebook on Tuesday night showing a man, said to be in the audience at a World Cup qualifying match, hanging an anti-government banner in the Hong Kong Stadium.

Lawmaker Charles Mok said setting up hotlines was a form of denunciation and a way to restrain people’s freedom of speech and assembly, while another lawmaker, Lam Chuk-ting from Democratic Party, said police wanted to create a threatening atmosphere, Apple Daily reported.

Previously, Kong Wing-cheung, a senior superintendent of police public relations, denied claims laid against police about indecent assaults and abuse of force when people were detained in police stations. He slammed people for making serious accusations while wearing face-masks or making anonymous complaints.

Netizens also launched a “#wtsappforhk” campaign, calling for people to send photos and videos to show police brutality.

A news report with 10 hotlines set up by Hong Kong Police. Photo: Facebook, HK Police