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A rioter throws a gasoline bomb at police in Wan Chai. [PHOTO/CHINA DAILY]

Policewoman on front line recalls harrowing experiences when dealing with protesters

These are hard times for Hong Kong"s police officers, but even more stressful for women in the thick of action alongside their male colleagues.

Nieh, an officer assigned as Company Second-in-charge of the Police Tactical Unit, also known as the "riot police", said that during her 12 years of service in the police force, she"s been on the front line of several violent protests, including the "Occupy Central" movement, a large-scale show of civil disobedience, in September 2014.

Speaking about the dispersal operations in Mong Kok on July 7, Nieh, now in her 30s and who only gave her surname, said the opposition lawmaker, Au Nok-hin, rushed toward her, shouting, "Shut up, Madam", besides making sexist remarks on her.

The officer said while she had got used to being abused by protesters, the sexist slur by the lawmaker made her furious. However, she said there was nothing she could do other than focusing on her job.

Au later offered an apology on social media after he was called an "abuser". She dismissed the apology, saying, "How can he insult me in person but apologize online?"

Nieh filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission, but was told Au"s behavior did not constitute sexism or harassment.

Nieh was frustrated she was unable to seek redress. She said she wanted legislation that guaranteed protection to police from gratuitous insults.

In some countries, including the United States and Germany, showing contempt to a police officer constitutes a criminal offense.

The incident also upset the other female police officers in Hong Kong. The force has nearly 30,000 officers, of whom 5,000 are women. Many of them have been on the frontline during recent violent protests. The 170-member team that Nieh leads has 21 female officers.

In the most dangerous situations during civil unrest, women officers have been performing the same role as the male officers, Nieh said. It includes carrying up to 40 pounds over long hours, up to a maximum of 30 hours, on a single shift.

"Sometimes the officers have to make arrests, often confronting protesters bigger and stronger than they are. When that happens and physical conflict breaks out, it"s hard to control the situation. Such situations require more time, tactics and manpower to handle," said Nieh.

She said protesters show no restraint when dealing with female officers, who are often targeted. "The protesters believe women are not as strong," said Nieh. She cited online posts that encouraged such behavior among protesters.

Female officers used to wear uniforms different from those of male officers. Not anymore. The practice was shelved in order to protect female officers by helping them to blend in.

During protracted protests, Nieh says she has suffered a lot. She tries to tell her parents not to worry, but she hasn"t called them much during the months of turmoil. Her mother, who is more than 80, is worried about Nieh working on the frontline of riot control. Nieh says that she sometimes lies to her mother about her posting so her mother doesn"t get worried.

The officer said it"s not physical exhaustion but the mental stress that takes a toll on police.

She said she even lost some friends because of the unrest. In August, Nieh led her team on an enforcement operation at the Tai Koo MTR station. Her former schoolmate uploaded clips of the incident, which had appeared online, on the social media group of her classmates. Then, a message followed, "Sorry. I can"t stay in this group anymore."

Nieh said she wept after that incident. "A friendship of more than 20 years ended because of the current situation. It broke my heart."

Nieh believes every frontline police officer has a similar experience.

Despite the ordeal, Nieh appeared to be calm, even displaying her sense of humor. Asked about her greatest feeling in the past few months, Nieh said, "Hungry!"

Nieh says she hopes the chaos will end soon." I really hope that one day, everything can return to normal."

Niel also called upon more women to join the force, as female officers have become increasingly important, considering there have been more women in recent violent protests.

That is a situation best handled by female police officers, Nieh said. Any physical contact with female protesters during arrests or even a simple body search would create more problems for the male officers, she said.

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