Hong Kong’s police force has come under a barrage of criticism over the large amounts of tear gas and other non-lethal weapons used during the protests that have rocked the city for the past six months.
Police figures laid bare the “inordinate” amount of force and weapons used to quell the protests, which newspapers and human rights groups have highlighted.
A total of 16,000 canisters of tear gas have been fired since the riot squad’s opening salvo on June 12, when tens of thousands of people laid siege to the territory’s parliament in Admiralty, in a bid to halt an amendment to a bill that would have allowed the rendition of fugitives to mainland China and elsewhere.
That means 90 tear gas canisters were fired per day on average. Anti-extradition bill demonstrators and pedestrians have choked on the fumes as they dashed for shelter in the protest-weary city.
Also, to put the figure in a different perspective, police only fired 87 tear gas canisters during a rally in Admiralty at the onset of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and not a single canister was fired during the next 78 days, which saw the occupation of the city’s financial district as people demanded universal suffrage.
However, apart from the tear gas barrages, the police also fired more than 10,000 rubber bullets as well as 4,000 bean bag and sponge rounds, according to the Ming Pao daily.
These tough tactics have resulted in an Indonesian journalist losing much of the sight of her right eye after being hit by a projectile, believed to be a rubber bullet fired at close range, while she was reporting on clashes between police and protesters at the end of September.
The police have also been lambasted for firing large amounts of tear gas during several dispersal operations in neighborhoods where there were kindergartens, hospitals and care homes for the elderly.
In reply, the police force has denied that their operations caused any health hazards, stressing that community liaison officers always reminded residents and businesses that may be affected by protests to close their windows and install air filters.
The police have also turned down repeated requests from pro-democracy lawmakers to make public the chemical composition of the tear gas, following reports that it had been sourcing tear gas from Chinese suppliers amid export bans from the United Kingdom and the United States.
Many people became incensed when officials told lawmakers that people may inhale more harmful chemicals while having a barbeque than when being hit by tear gas.
Human rights groups including the Civil Rights Observer blasted the police for the “disproportionate and indiscriminate” use of force and weapons against protesters, which they said was on a par with military operations. They alleged that the police’s “tear gas bombardments” may have breached the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention.
A member of the Independent Police Complaints Council also told the Ming Pao daily that the force must address the mounting concerns, but he added that the police may not have too many other non-lethal crowd-control tools to choose from.
“When police officers are easily outnumbered by a rowdy crowd in a street protest, firing tear gas to disperse people to keep some distance is perhaps the best way to ensure the safety of everyone,” he said.
The police watchdog is now compiling a report on police tactics and the use of force in tackling the months of unrest, although one key demand from protesters is a judge-led independent probe into alleged police brutality that ranges from the alleged excessive use of force to physical and even sexual assaults against those arrested.
But perhaps in a hint of a change of strategy, the police did not fire any tear gas on Sunday evening during a largely peaceful procession attended by about 800,000 protesters, according to the organizers. Even after a few masked radicals hurled bricks and petrol bombs toward the Court of Final Appeal Building and onto a major thoroughfare in the city’s financial district, no tear gas was fired.