Mob wins when cops forget their role

2013-11-10 10:00

While the police and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) have been at loggerheads over how this year’s crime statistics have been calculated, violence in the form of mob “justice” has broken out in some communities that have felt let down by the justice system.

In Khutsong, six people were killed this week in a series of horrific mob attacks after the community became fed up with being terrorised by gangs in the area.

Although residents claim that nobody innocent was killed, it wasn’t up to them to judge who was innocent or guilty.

Passing this judgement could end up in the killing of innocent people, as happened in East London after a rumour was spread on social networks about a child-snatching syndicate.

Mobs beat an innocent matric pupil to death and attempted to murder two other men. It was only a rumour, as the police later confirmed.

In the case of Khutsong, it appears the structures in place there to serve the community – the police and community forums – failed the people.

In East London, there was clearly a perception, whether justified or not, that these wouldn’t have helped anyway.

If statistics are showing an improved picture of crime in South Africa, they are of no use if communities aren’t feeling them.

The ISS has argued that the police used old population statistics to work out crime ratios, which, they said, meant the increase in crimes like murder, robbery and assault had been understated.

Whether this was true or not, the statistics fight is purely political.

The real problem is with the police’s public relations on the ground. Many police officials do great work, and often go unpraised in public.

But when there are rotten apples, they get very public exposure. And they should.

The work of the police is to protect us. They are our first point of contact with the justice system.

Just this week, two officers – aged 22 and 51 – were arrested for raping a 17-year-old girl in Atteridgeville, Tshwane.

This didn’t do much for maintaining the perception of the police as people who are there to protect.

The political drama playing out in the top echelons of the police service, with national commissioner General Riah Phiyega accused of irregularly informing a senior police official that he was being investigated, also doesn’t inspire confidence.

To be really effective in putting an end to crime and violence, the police would have to do a lot more than just getting their stats right.

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