16 September 2014
Police watchdog facing challenges
The IPCC needs to demonstrate that it is an impartial contributor to the complaints process
For 37 years, the city has had a two-tier system to treat police complaints. One tier handles the complaint; the other has oversight of the handling of the complaint.
A police section known as the Complaints Against Police Office (Capo) receives the complaints. Its work is monitored by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to ensure the reports are handled fairly and with a degree of transparency.
As one is naturally suspicious of the police policing themselves in this area, the IPCC plays a special role in promoting public confidence in the system.
The council celebrated five years as a statutory body and welcomed a new chairman on June 1. In the coming months, it will probably face its greatest challenges with the looming political reform protests and resulting police complaints. Its impartiality will be tested.
Even if in practice the IPCC acts true to its motto, the public may think differently. As Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching wisely noted at a symposium to mark the fifth anniversary, "reality and public perception may differ. What can be done to improve public perception is a continuing quest."
As part of that quest, new thinking should be directed to enhancing perception of the IPCC's independence. One idea is to make the appointments process more transparent and robust. The law confers wide discretion on the chief executive to appoint an unlimited number of council members, now totalling 24. To avoid criticism of political bias, perhaps an independent advisory committee could recommend names to the chief executive and, even better, draw those names from applications openly invited and made by interested persons. This is a merit-based and more professional approach and is similar to the process used for appointing magistrates and Court of First Instance judges.
Another suggestion is to highlight how often the IPCC disagrees with Capo. If there is a high endorsement rate with little or no disagreement, one would wonder whether the council simply rubber-stamped Capo decisions. The statute treats disagreement seriously: the chief executive is to be notified.
The truth is the two disagree sometimes and, through dialogue, the council can cause Capo to change its decision. These are instances where the second tier makes a difference.
The IPCC needs to be cautious with its on-site visits to public demonstration venues. It has no mandate to observe or diffuse actual conflicts between the police and protesters. To do so would mean that it has "entered the arena" despite its passive monitoring role.
Also, the council must not appear to associate too closely with police during these visits. Such impressions would not be dispelled even if it meets protest organisers after the event.
Finally, where complaints are lodged against IPCC members themselves, it does not boost confidence to have three other council members investigate and find the complaints unsubstantiated. Outside membership in the review would be better. The IPCC should strive to make the whole complaints process more transparent and accountable.
Simon Young Ngai-man is professor and associate dean in the University of Hong Kong's law faculty