Take the force out of policing

2013-03-17 10:00

Another week in South Africa, another story of police cruelty, absolutely repugnant in its details, and the usual statement from the SA Police Service (SAPS) condemning the actions of the officers involved.

This time, the statement in response to the savage killing of taxi driver Mido Macia was from Siyabonga Cwele, the acting police minister.

It contains the predictable, “we view this ­incident in a serious light” and “want stern action so that it may send a message to other officers that any untoward conduct will not be tolerated”.

This is far from the truth. The SAPS is an organisation of more than 150?000 officers and it is not appropriate to make sweeping generalisations. But for many SAPS members, brutality is how the job gets done.

Unskilled and poorly trained, working in an environment of repeated conflict in which many people do not easily submit to their authority, ultimately policing comes down to showing people who is boss. Assaults and forms of torture are thus entrenched.

Far from not tolerating it, many police commanders deal with this problem by turning a blind eye. Often, the officers who are engaged in brutality are the ones who are motivated and productive, and who generate large numbers of arrests.

As a result, commanders feel uneasy about disciplining those at the forefront of crime-fighting efforts.

This is not just something police learn in the field. The limited publicly available information on what takes place in police training is that they are told to disregard principles of minimum force as long as they have a pretext for doing so.

Within the culture that exists in much of the SAPS, the only thing aberrant about the incident in Daveyton, from their perspective, was that they were exposed.

The police involved in the killing are likely to be punished not because of their brutality, but because they have brought the SAPS into disrepute.

And it’s easy to see why the police respond in this way if we look at their recent history. Since the late 1990s, police ministers have either been disengaged from the portfolio or given open encouragement to the more aggressive use of force.

In the case of the current Minister, Nathi Mthethwa, this has taken the form of calls on police to “fight fire with fire” and to use “maximum force”. What we have had since 2008 is leadership that believes police can resolve the challenges they face by using force more aggressively.

At the level of national commissioner, post-apartheid South Africa has not, for many years, had a leader with any personal experience of policing. Related to this, the guidance they provide is crude in the extreme.

Former commissioner Bheki Cele’s way of standing up for the police was to advocate for shooting people who threaten them. Current commissioner Riah Phiyega described the Marikana killings as “the best of responsible policing”.

There is a more humane way for police to do their jobs instead of becoming the embodiment of the violence they are supposed

to oppose.

The majority of those who use force are at the station level. Even though laws have changed and there have been changes in the approach to public-order policing, the framework for managing the use of force by ordinary police units remains unchanged from the days of apartheid.

There is a need to reorientate the entire framework for controlling the use of force. But for this to be possible, the political and police leadership would have to recognise that current systems and approaches are ineffective.

As yet, we have no indication they have reached this point.

»?Bruce is an independent researcher who ­specialises in crime and policing

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