Year One: Trial by fireblack and white rubber bracelets on HK"s mean streets

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A demonstrator holding an umbrella walks past a fire from a gasoline bomb in Tsim Sha Tsui on Nov 18, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

Their training had prepared the raw recruits to walk the city"s mean streets, but this head-on collision with those they were sworn to protect was not like anything the city"s police force had experienced since 1997.

Two graduates of the Hong Kong Police College"s class of 2019 said that they were "honored and fortunate" to take on the challenge.

Chan and Chiang graduated in April and June, and were assigned as inspectors to the Tsim Sha Tsui Division in West Kowloon. They described a trial by fire, confronting unbridled violence against public and private property, and against those who disagreed with them.

Chan became a quick study, learning the dangerous game of riot control, among other things, in the past six months. He"s a commander of a sub-unit.

Learning from the troubles

He said what he has learned during these troubled times will serve him for the rest of his career.

The Hong Kong Police Force had just about written the book on operational tactics for dealing with crowds running amok. In 2014, demonstrations disrupted the city"s busiest districts for two months on end during the "Occupy Central" movement. In 2016 came the Mong Kok riot, but in neither case were the protesters hurling gasoline bombs into buildings and at police officers, Chan said.

Through hundreds of confrontations over the past six months, Hong Kong police have learned the lessons of handling crises and defusing dangerous situations, Chan said. Rioters, who numbered in the hundreds, were not dissuaded from attacking police stations, and front-line officers had to learn how to defend their colleagues and police buildings pelted with gasoline bombs — even assessing what type of weapons the protesters were carrying.

Chiang, the other freshly minted inspector, said she felt "lucky" to have entered the force during its toughest trial. She learned a lot — and she had to learn fast.

"I decided to be a policewoman. I wanted to serve the people. The long hours on the front lines put me in a better position to learn," Chiang said.

Chiang started as a trainee at the police college in August 2018. She graduated in June — right when the troubles started. Before she took training, she served as an executive officer working with the Hong Kong government.

It takes 36 weeks of police college training to qualify as an inspector, able to lead a squad.

So what was it like, standing face to face with a mob intent on doing harm? Chan confessed that he felt anxious while standing on the front line of a riot-control operation. He"d been out of the police college for only two months. Chan said he got rid of the jitters by focusing on what he needed to do to control the situation.

Fear, anger, even disorientation can come into play in a crisis. Chan noted that emotional self-control is critical because his teammates will be affected.

At the height of the tensions, Chan would remind himself of why he joined the force. He thought he would contribute to making Hong Kong a safe city.

"I wear the uniform to protect people. I have no time to be afraid," he kept telling himself.

Tsim Sha Tsui police station is at the core of this business district. Anti-government protesters hammered metro stations and businesses viewed as sympathetic to the government. Gasoline bombs landed in the yard of the police station on Aug 11. One officer was hit and suffered second-degree burns to 10 percent of his body.

Unforgettable memories

The real test was still to come. In November, rioters took over the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Police laid siege to the campus which had become a stronghold for radical students and rioters. Thousands of other protesters attempted to break through police lines.

Chiang recalled that the officers under her command were fired up, and she had to restrain their impulses to confront the protesters head-on. "I had to be more restrained to set a good example," she said.

She heard plenty of verbal abuse directed at her. Some radicals, noticing that she was a woman, even threatened that one day, retribution shall fall on her children.

"I made no response to them. They wanted to make me lose control," the 27-year-old said.

"We are trained to do the right things," she reminded colleagues.

Serving as a sub-unit commander, straight out of police college, Chiang said she has felt huge pressure over the past six months. She was responsible for keeping her colleagues safe while keeping up their morale. She found that pretty challenging.

"To be frank, our officers feel flustered when they see bombs thrown at us — they are young people, anyway. But we cannot be distracted. We need to keep our formation and defense," Chiang said.

The efforts paid off. Chiang said it gives her satisfaction at the end of the day when she sees that her colleagues, those under her command, have stayed safe.

In the past few months, front-line riot police have worked an average of 16 hours a day, Chan said. During the height of the troubles, he worked 36 hours straight.

Energy bars and instant noodles became standard fare for Chan and other police officers to ward off hunger.

In November, protesters disrupted metro stations and blocked major roads, paralyzing the city"s transportation system. Many officers rested at the police stations when off-duty, fearing they would not be able to respond to emergencies from home in the event of traffic congestion.

In October, Chiang started getting crank calls. She had to change her number. In the meantime, her name, photos, social media accounts, and home address were posted online.

"I"m lucky nothing truly dangerous happened," Chiang said.

It was still stressful. She feared for her family and worried that more private information would spread on social media. Even changing her phone number set off a bout of paranoia. She was afraid that even phone company staff would come across her "profile" on the internet and identify her.

Doing the right thing

Chiang never doubted that she was doing the right thing. "I know my aims. Not everyone does," she said, adding that the personal trial made her realize there are people she can trust. The experience helped her to learn how to help colleagues with similar situations.

Chan and Chiang said the police force is like a big family — the sense of belonging gets stronger during the most difficult days.

Chan noted the changes in Tsim Sha Tsui over the past six months. It used to be busy, crowded. The major arteries — Nathan Road and Canton Road — would be full of tourists from all over the world. Now there aren"t as many pedestrians or cars on the popular routes. He hopes the unrest will end soon, and that Tsim Sha Tsui, and the whole city, can return to prosperity.

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