Pronouncements by the new South African Police Service (SAPS) management and even the Presidency on its approach to harden the stance in the fight against crime are creating waves in the public and more especially amongst police and security commentators. This has been highlighted by the many fatal shootings of innocent people in the past few months. Fears of a militarised police and even the apartheid-style police have been bandied about. The general response to the new attitude of the police is also exacrebated by other structural changes the police have undergone in the last few years.
The SAPS as a national agency has by far the biggest responsibility for policing in the country. In order for it to function optimally its support structures must be effective - particularly when radical operational changes are being proposed. Some of the intended changes demonstrating the tougher approach since April 2009 include:
* Renaming the Ministry of Safety and Security to the Ministry of Police
* Transforming the ‘service' ethos of the police to that of a ‘force'
* Revising Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act. While unclear at this point, it appears that it will be about clarifying the conditions that would constitute a threat for purposes of the use of deadly force. In addition it will allow police to use deadly force to effect an arrest, even when they are not directly threatened in cases where serious violent crimes of a specific kind were committed and other methods of arrest are not applicable (the latter amendment has already been endorsed in a constitutional case judgement, in the Walters case, in 2002)
* Advocating for a militarised ranking system
* Promoting fiery public statements like ‘shoot to kill' and ‘meet fire with fire'
It is clear that the tough approach is SAPS' new strategy designed to bring down the high levels of crime. All in all, the intention is sound - especially given the increases in violent crimes over the last 10 years, the level of violence in the commitment of the crimes, and the levels of fear crime has generated.
Management's error in advancing this approach has been the lack of parallel strategies and systems to support members on the ground in the implementation phases. For example, if section 49 were to be amended as proposed by the police, then members would have to sharpen their shooting skills in order to fire accurately and to avoid indiscriminate shooting. This should be done by undergoing intensive shooting training as well as undertaking in-service training on a continuous basis - a facet that is clearly absent in the SAPS presently. At the same time members would have to raise their fitness levels in preparation for harder combat situations. Protective equipment such as bulletproof vests to ensure the safety of members would also have to be a prerequisite, as members are known to be exceedingly lax in utilising protective gear.
Alongside these, command and control has to be reinvigorated to ensure coordinated operational responses. Internal oversight structures of the SAPS in the form of the national and provincial inspectorates have to be improved to ensure the provision of relevant support for members at stations. Most importantly, external oversight mechanisms of the police, such as the Independent Complaints Directorate and the Secretariat for Safety and Security have to be beefed up - with more skilled staff to ensure effective actions and timeous investigations of incidents. Parliament too would have to intensify the oversight role they perform with regards to overseeing the actions of the police.
Another error on the side of the police has been what appears to be superficial changes such as renaming the establishment and changing the rank structure of officers. While this may further serve to advance the tougher approach of the police, it will not necessarily improve command and control or provide stricter authority within the police. Rather it reinforces the lack of focus in the development of the new strategy. More substantial concerns such as incompetence and indiscipline within the police and rooting out corruption would serve the police more in advancing changes.
The final error of the police has been the poor communication of messages via the mass media. The announcement of the amendment to section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act and the resultant public outcry could have been averted if statements that section 49 was being brought in line with the constitutional judgement of 2002 supported the announcement. Additionally, fiery pronouncements such as ‘meet fire with fire' and ‘shoot the bastards' promoting the police's tougher measures have only served to feed an already insecure public fearing the formation of another military organisation or the return of the apartheid police.
Adopting a harder approach to fighting crime would require a police agency that is more professional and competent. As it stands, while legislation relating to either of the proposed changes has not yet been enacted, the ethos and attitude within police members has changed remarkably - because of the widespread belief that support for any indiscriminate action will be forthcoming from higher echelons. SAPS have to caution against this belief and ensure that the rule of law is maintained.
Written by: Bilkis Omar, researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria Office