Cops don’t cry

2013-05-26 10:00

Traumatised. Frightened of the people and communities they protect. Angry. Athandiwe Saba gets inside the mind of South Africa’s men and women in blue.

Cowboys - and cops - don’t cry.

‘Iwould be full of fear and anxiety every time we had to do house raids and I had to knock on a door, even though we always wore protective gear. I’ve heard of too many policemen shot in the line of duty.”

Eventually Lwazi*, who’s been a police officer for 24 years, decided it was time to get off the streets.

A husband and father now in his early 50s, Lwazi jumped at the opportunity to be promoted to warrant officer. Now he works in court “instead of living in constant danger”.

That’s not an exaggeration. Before his promotion, he worked in public-order policing and was often called into Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s most dangerous areas.

“I saw many people gunned down in front of my eyes – there was just so much violence,” he says.

Lwazi’s story is not uncommon in the ranks of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

The head of the SAPS’ psychology division, Brigadier Busi Buthelezi, paints a grim picture of what is keeping officers awake at night.

Largely, she says, officers come to her division to seek trauma counselling.

Like Lwazi, they have seen colleagues gunned down in the line of duty and are grappling with the challenges of serving angry constituencies.

Even off duty, they are feared and hated by their neighbours and members of their communities.

Lwazi lived in Nyanga township while he was working in the public-order unit.

He says: “Most of the people from my community are angry at police officers, thinking we are not doing our job and (that) we are all corrupt. But that is not true.”

Buthelezi agrees that many police officers come from the same communities that loathe the men and women in blue.

She says: “Police officers are members of the public and are dealing with a very angry public, which is also vulnerable.

“It is stressful knowing that you have to go out to a very violent and angry community, face dangerous criminals while knowing that your life is in the balance, knowing that anything could happen.”

Added to all that, police officers deal with the same issues that bother all of us at some point: general stress, money worries and problems in personal relationships.

But there is help for officers.

Buthelezi oversees a division that offers a range of support services.

The problem is that officers don’t want to admit they are traumatised or frightened.

According to Buthelezi, experienced officers believe their years of service make them immune to trauma.

“In awareness sessions, we try to make asking for help normal.

This ‘cowboys don’t cry’ attitude doesn’t work,” she says.

“But we also understand that there are issues of tradition and culture that also come into play, where a man who seeks help seems to be a weakling.”

Buthelezi would not give exact figures, but said that despite officers’ reluctance, referrals come through frequently.

Officers are referred for psychological services when colleagues or station commanders notice they are drinking heavily, suspect they are abusing drugs, or are suddenly prone to fits of rage and violence.

Buthelezi says awareness programmes are run in stations to teach officers how to notice these behaviour patterns and changes.

The tools may be in place, but that doesn’t mean officers like Lwazi and his colleagues are using what is on offer.

He’s never attended a counselling session, and says the reality is that sometimes officers must just lace up their boots, holster their guns and head back to duty.

“We are under a lot of pressure as police officers, from our communities and our code, and we have to make sure we deliver, under whatever circumstances,” says Lwazi.

*?Not his real name

Profile of a typical SA police officer

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