NOEL KING, HOST:
Hong Kong police arrested three prominent young activists. Two of them are now out on bail. This is the latest move in a crackdown on anti-government protests. The police force there is caught in the middle between the government and the protesters. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, allegations of police brutality are taking a toll on the force's reputation for being impartial and professional.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Last week in New Territories, a crowd of protesters armed with metal poles and other makeshift weapons attacked 10 policemen. The officers were overwhelmed. One fell. Another drew his service revolver and fired a warning shot, the first gunshot in three months of protests.
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KUHN: Police spokesman John Tse spoke to the press on Monday.
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JOHN TSE: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: "The officer in this incident acted with courage and restraint," he said. "Under the circumstances, his use of force was necessary and reasonable." But some critics charge that the police use of force is out of proportion to the threat. They cite improper use of tear gas, beating protesters who have stopped resisting and undercover cops posing as demonstrators.
SENIA NG: My name is Senia Ng. I am a barrister at law in Hong Kong.
KUHN: Ng argues that police are no longer acting like the impartial institution they once were.
NG: It seems that the police is defending the government. I think it's a very basic principle that in a civilized society like Hong Kong, the police - they are there to protect the citizens and not to attack the citizens.
KUHN: Ng is part of a team of lawyers offering free legal aid to arrested demonstrators, and she says this has given her an inside look at police abuses.
NG: We have heard and seen many protesters being hit and assaulted by the police in the police station, which is totally inappropriate.
KUHN: She also accuses police of obstructing lawyers' visits to protesters. Still, she admits Hong Kong is no mainland China, where many lawyers are disbarred or jailed for defending opponents of the government.
NG: I do believe that our judicial system is still functioning properly, and it is probably the last line of protection. So I do call upon everyone to continue safeguarding and protecting our judicial independence.
KUHN: Despite the escalating violence, the police have defended their actions. They say they have things under control, and many longtime observers agree. One of them is Steve Vickers, a consultant and former head of the Criminal Intelligence Bureau of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force under British colonial rule.
STEVE VICKERS: I think overall, they've handled it pretty well. There's been a couple of own goals.
KUHN: One of the own goals Vickers mentions is the police's overly lenient handling of local gangs, known as triads, which have attacked the protesters. This has led to accusations that the police are in cahoots with the gangsters. But the main pressure on the police, Vickers argues, is not from allegations of corruption or brutality. It's the pressure of being expected to resolve what is ultimately not a law enforcement problem.
VICKERS: This is entirely a political problem. This is a problem that the government should be addressing with the people. Sadly, none of that is currently occurring, and the only contact that the people of Hong Kong have with their government is the police.
KUHN: Hong Kong's government, Vickers says, is trying to wait the protesters out. And the police, he says, are absorbing the protesters' fury that's meant for the government.
VICKERS: But overall, I would say the police are still very much in control. And at this point, I don't think there's any need for any additional external assistance.
KUHN: Assistance, for example, from mainland Chinese security forces. Vickers has lived his whole life in Hong Kong, and he says he's sad to see the current state of affairs. He just hopes that Hong Kong's police can hold on and that Beijing will not intervene. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.