OPINION | Bad cop and good cop: The untold lockdown story

Police at a roadblock in Khayelitsha. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)
Police at a roadblock in Khayelitsha. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)

In the past 50 days of lockdown, those incidents (of police brutality) represent a tiny fraction of my personal dealings with hundreds of other police. And their behaviour has told a vividly different story.

The policeman grabbed the journalist's nipple. Squeezed hard. And twisted painfully. The same policeman elbowed another journalist in the throat.  

It was Day 12 of the lockdown and the authorities were just beefing up.

Four days later, police were pushing more limits.

A minister’s blue-light cavalcade sped from Paarl towards Brackenfell on the N1 highway.

It’s hard to tell the racing speeds they reached, because my Toyota Fortuner couldn’t keep up. At 168km/h, my diesel engine ran out of legs.

The sleek black BMWs accelerated away.

In Muizenberg, two men stood side-by side, in the 6am to 9am "exercise window", under Level 4.

Both were protesting the ban on entering the sea.

Police barked: "Keep moving."

One man shuffled off. The other didn’t. Moments later, he was arrested for "standing still".

The man who had ambled off retained his freedom. The other one disappeared from sight, caged in a crowded police van, with no "social distancing" in sight.

Like many incidents more.

There’s an expression: "You’re entitled to you own opinions. But not your own facts."

Correct. So, to be clear: The above are not opinions. They’re all captured on video.

"I am literally terrified of the police," a Cape Town man told me. He’s a senior government official.

The facts above support a national narrative: "The police have been heavy-handed."

And top police leadership have agreed.

When a man’s toddler ran on to a beach, and he stepped on to the sand to fetch her - and was then arrested - Western Cape Provincial Police Commissioner Lieutenant-General Yolisa Matakata was dismayed.

She implored her officials to use "logic" and "common sense" next time.

The public criticism has even reached back into history, drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany. "Police brutality" has become front-page news.

But I’d prefer to arrest this train of thought, for the moment.

For a simple reason: It goes back to how we define "news".

In journalism school, a long time ago, I was taught this simple explanation: "Man bites dog."

Explained: Dogs bite people all the time. It's a bit sore - but hardly Page One news.

On the other hand, if a MAN had to bite a DOG: Now we’re talking!

The above stories are all documented.

Alleged police abuse, physically.

Alleged police abuse of power. Alleged police abuse of authority. The courts will have to decide whether the police perpetrators are guilty or innocent. It’s right they’re held publicly to account.

But in the past 50 days of lockdown, those incidents represent a tiny fraction of my personal dealings with hundreds of other police. And their behaviour has told a vividly different story.

Of men and women in blue, crisply starched with pride. Relentless in their courtesy. Tireless in their professionalism. Tenacious in their discipline.

Who’ve stood tall, unbuckled by the surrounding uncertainty and fear. Honouring their sworn duties to serve and protect.

I watched a City of Cape Town Metro policeman stop a teenager on a bicycle. Out on the road illegally. The officer stopped him in his tracks. The wide-eyed young man was terrified.

But the officer had a gun - and also grace.

In that moment, he understood his real power was gentleness. He let the rider go with a stern warning.

And in Greenmarket Square, a moment which will remain with me forever: Dozens of refugees filed out of the Methodist Church, after police insisted they leave for a safer new site - rather than crammed up on top of each other between the pews. The incident had started ominously, when police battered down the old wooden church door with sledgehammers.

"Oh boy," we said, here goes: "This is going to end in tears."

Then I noticed, on the frontline, a man leaning in, watching proceedings intently. A man in blue. He was top brass - but wore no shiny-gold rank.

Instead, the same working fatigues as his men.  

"That's the general in charge of this operation," an insider explained to me.

"He’s been here since very early this morning, sitting among the refugees, talking to them, pleading with them. Explaining this move has to happen, under the Disaster Management Act. And promising it’ll be done peacefully, with maximum dignity."

The general watched every step, not from a command-post-on-high, but with his own eyes. Taking personal account for the behaviour of his men.

And that, in my experience, is the real front page news, which never makes the papers. 

Not the elbow jammed into my throat, but the thousands of SAPS, army and law enforcement officials, at hundreds of of roadblocks and operations, in the past 50 days, who have all defended my dignity.

As aggressively as their badges and our Constitution demand.

- Murray Williams is a reporter at News24

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