Fifteen Hong Kong students were among 60 people arrested in an eight-day operation, dubbed “Stepshadow”, that targeted an uptick in youth crime that some police believe has accompanied the suspension of school classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Officers think most of the students, aged from 12 to 18, can be linked to three violent bullying cases in Tuen Mun earlier this year that saw one boy and two girls beaten up by street youth gangs.
The attacks took place at different northern Hong Kong public housing estates in January and February, according to a senior police official.
In one of the incidents, a 15-year-old girl was slapped and kicked about 50 times by two teenage girls on the roof of a multistorey car park at On Ting Estate in January. The beating was captured in a disturbing four-minute online video that went viral.
A police source said he believed some students had joined gangs as there was no schooling during the coronavirus outbreak. Each gang consisted of 10 to 20 people, he said, most of whom were unemployed.
“Members of these youth gangs are residents in the area and they know each other. They usually gather in a public housing estate at night and are mainly involved in bullying activities,” he said.
He said some of the individuals had triad backgrounds, but there was no indication to show there was a triad gang behind them.
In addition to the students, officers arrested some other members of local youth gangs over the three assaults.
“Our operation will make the street gangs lie low for a while,” the source said. “We will keep a close watch on them and take enforcement action again if necessary.”
Police said the 15 schoolboys and girls had been released on bail, pending further investigation.
The three street gangs involved were among the targets of a police operation against youth crimes in Tuen Mun, according to assistant Tuen Mun district commander Li Suk-yee.
She said Operation Stepshadow was mounted in response to an increasing number of serious crimes involving youth this year.
After gathering intelligence, officers swooped into action and arrested 60 people in a series of raids between March 22 and 29.
During the operation, which also saw the closure of an unlicensed pub and a drug den, police seized HK$115,000 in cash, 21 grams of illegal drugs, weapons such as an axe and knives, and more than 300 bottles of liquor.
Police said the cash was seized in a car used to deliver illegal drugs in the district.
“We believe a Sun Yee On triad syndicate was behind the drug-trafficking activities in the district and the unlicensed pub,” another source said.
He said he believed the triad lured teenagers into narcotics-related activities by offering them free drugs.
The suspects – 32 men and 28 women ranging from 12 to 49 years of age – were arrested for various offences such as drug trafficking, wounding, assault, robbery and criminal intimidation.
Police figures show the number of juveniles aged 10 to 15 arrested for crimes rose 22.8 per cent to 1,140 in 2019, up from 928 the year before.
Arrests for criminal offences among those ages 16 to 20 jumped even more dramatically over the same period, with 3,128 in that age group arrested in 2019, up 69.9 per cent, from 1,841 in 2018.
Police, however, said most of the crimes committed by youths were offences against public order such as unlawful assemblies and riots.
Hong Kong has experienced months of protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, which would have allowed for the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not have existing agreements, including Taiwan and mainland China.
More than 7,000 people have been arrested since June for various protest-related offences, including rioting, possessing explosives and firearms without a licence, and arson. According to police, two in five of those arrested were students, with more than 1,100 still in secondary school.