Can police service win back the trust of protesters?

2013-04-24 15:57

Andries Tatane’s widow, Malehlohonolo Tatane, said she “would never trust a police officer again”.

Her husband died at the hands of police during a service-delivery protest march in Ficksburg when, according to the findings of the SA Human Rights Commission, the police used excessive force and violated many of Tatane’s rights, including his right to protest and his right to life. The protest was not about police action, but the police eventually had blood on their hands.

With an estimated 3 000 protests having taken place in the last four years, South Africa is among the countries with the highest numbers of service-delivery protests in the world. According to Leadership magazine, “the interaction between the protesting residents and the local councillors, national government and police, seems to indicate widespread collapse of systems and structures as well as growing distrust”.

This assessment was unfortunately reinforced when footage of the killing of protesters in Marikana and images of people being dragged by police vehicles went viral on the internet. As the whole world looked on in shock at our police brutality, police commissioner General Riah Phiyega defended the police brutality and said there was no need to apologise to Marikana miners.

Given our exposure to violent protests, why is the SA Police Service (SAPS) not the world leader in the policing of violent protests? By now, we should have been at the forefront of knowledge, experience and reputation as far as the de-escalation of violent protests is concerned.

There was a time when we were leaders in this respect. Now we have to look with some jealousy at, for example, what a country like Sweden is doing.

Sweden also experienced violent protests in the city of Gothenburg in 2001. The Swedish police were completely caught off-guard and realised that it needed a different form of policing to prevent violence during protests. They embarked on a renewal mission and asked researchers to help them find answers.

This process led to the development of a successful model to policing protests, which included the establishment of a dialogue police unit whose ultimate goal was to facilitate freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate.

Their emphasis is, today, on de-escalation, minimising violence against the police and other groups, and preventing damage to property.

Dialogue police adopted a new mind-set. Protesters were no longer seen as law-breakers, criminals and enemies, but as equal, fellow citizens and partners whose human and constitutional rights and dignity had to be protected at all cost. Police officers saw themselves as “gateways to trust” and, consequently, as communicators, negotiators, mediators, facilitators, problem solvers and monitors in the first place, and appliers of law and order only when the first approach was not appropriate any more.

According to Carsten Alven, a Swedish dialogue police officer: “When you respect people’s right to express their views, you build trust and a space to open dialogue. You’ve got to give police and protesters reason to trust each other. When you don’t show trust, you don’t give others the responsibility to show you are worthy of trust.”

How did the Swedes manage to change the mind-sets of police officers?

There are three key reasons for their success: they valued field studies; in all projects they worked collaboratively in partnerships with practitioners, trainers and researchers; and they focused on communication between key stakeholders before, during and after protests.

In reality, police officers had to develop a communicative mind-set and an ability to de-escalate conflicts through listening to counterparts.

Alven explains that “police train how to give orders and take command of situations, but not so much how to really listen and how to engage in a genuine dialogue”.

Real dialogue requires good information, solid networks and open communication channels, within the police and with outside partners, so that, when a protest occurs, everybody is connected and prepared for any event.

Before the event, police would typically meet with all key stakeholders, especially the leaders of the protest action, in a spirit of “how can we help you to have a successful and non-violent protest, which is your right? And how can all of us respect one another’s dignity and rights and show this through responsible behaviour?”

Is this scenario possible in the current South African context? Of course it is. In fact, during the National Peace Accord (NPA), between 1991-1994, we did exactly what Sweden is now credited for: preventing violence through negotiation, mediation and facilitation.

I had the privilege of working for the Western Cape Regional Peace Committee and vividly remember many occasions where civil society activists, peace workers, political parties and the security forces met to share information, design strategies to defuse tensions and forge consensus on tactics and logistics. Police commanders learnt not to exclude “outsiders”, but to seek their advice and assistance, without which the police would never have been able to de-escalate tensions.

Even in situations where the police themselves were the source of the problems, they subjected themselves to be held accountable by the peace committees.

We may not have had a dialogue police unit like the Swedes, but we had strong institutionalised infrastructures for peace on the ground, with a mandate from the NPA. Everybody joined hands with a common purpose: to combat violence nonviolently towards a peaceful transition. We succeeded and that is what the world credited us for.

So why did we not continue from there to transform into the best civilian and civilised police service in the world?

The reference to the Swedish example does definitely not suggest that the West or Europe is setting the standard here. On the contrary, we were the ones who had set a standard for the rest of the world in 1994, but now we are so far behind.

Many of my former colleagues – researchers, practitioners and trainers – in the NPA structures continued to work with the police in these capacities, but since Jackie Selebi’s appointment as national police commissioner, they found themselves excluded. Police management has been far less willing to work with “outsiders” than before. This is a bizarre development, which defies logic and does not make sense.

Why on earth would you deprive yourself of learning from others? And why would you sideline your fellow citizens, whose purpose it was to help the SAPS grow into the most experienced and sophisticated police service in the world?

If the police want to win back the trust of South Africans, it needs to pause, learn and unlearn a few things. It is time that South Africans hold the minister and the national commissioner of police and her team accountable to do the following:

» Invite South African practitioners, trainers and researchers to help them succeed. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge in this country and abroad.

» Call the best minds in the country together to design a kind of Operation Restore Trust and Safety – a comprehensive turnaround strategy that is based on solid research, sound theories and practices, and aligned with constitutional and basic human values and principles.

» Acknowledge and apologise for the mistakes of the past and spell out clear principles and strategies to prevent a repetition.

» Catch police officers doing things right and reward them as role models.

» All police officers should be trained to listen to and build relationships with the public, especially those with a potential for violent protests. As the tagline for the movie Babel says “If you want to be understood, listen.”

» Reorientate police towards prevention and de-escalation instead of only enforcing law and order.

It will be a long journey, but trust can be restored. It depends on leadership.

» Spies is a facilitation, dialogue and mediation practitioner

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