The South African Police Service (SAPS) currently finds itself in a serious dilemma over changes that are described by some as a process of militarisation. This dilemma, constantly faced by many police organisations, is best described by Neil Walker in a book by Stephens & Becker titled Police Force - Police Service: Care and Control in Britain (1994) as a form of `institutional schizophrenia`. In essence this refers to the tension between the ethos of law enforcement (control) and the ethos of community orientated policing (care). A police `force` would represent the ethos of control, while a police `service` would represent the care ethos. The dilemma facing policy makers is in finding the most appropriate ethos or an acceptable balance that would best serve South Africa`s constitutional imperatives as well as effectively addressing our security needs.
In October 2009 President Jacob Zuma, in a meeting with more than a thousand police station commissioners, made it clear that in his view the SAPS is a `force` and not a `service`. He argued that what the police do is much more than `service delivery` and implied that, given South Africa`s `abnormal crime problem`, the service orientation should make room for law enforcement and the use of force. In this regard he expressed support for proposed amendments to section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 that would give the police additional powers to use deadly force. It was also during this meeting that he mooted the possibility of reintroducing the previous (military style) rank system of the police.
Five months later, on March 11, 2010 the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, released a press statement announcing that the new ranks of the police would be implemented on 1 April 2010. In his statement he said, amongst others, that:
Police forces around the world are referred to as the Force and their ranks are accordingly linked to such designations. We have taken a stance as this government of fighting crime and fighting it tough ... [t]his should not be misinterpreted as merely the militarization of the police but as part of our new approach of being fierce towards criminals, while lenient to citizens' safety and maintaining good discipline within the Force.
This was followed by a letter on March 31, 2010 signed by the National Commissioner of the Police, General Bheki Cele, informing members about the introduction of the new ranks and claiming that this was necessary:
[f]or protocol, command and control purposes including the need to ensure mutual respect between members of the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force, who are on a regular basis involved in joint operations, [and] it was deemed appropriate to adopt some of the military ranks utilized by the South African National Defence Force, which ranks are also used by some police forces across the world.
Some supporters of the military rank system argue that much more than the introduction of military ranks is necessary to `militarise` the police, but not everyone agrees. Those opposed to these ranks such as POPCRU (Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union), have openly rejected the change to the ranking system on the basis that it demonstrates an unconstitutional attempt to militarise the police. POPCRU is currently in the process of taking the matter to the High Court.
It is true that the Constitution refers to a `police service` and refers to the head of the service as the `national commissioner` and provincial heads as `provincial commissioners`. However, these are specific posts within the police service and are not necessarily related to a rank. Indeed, none of the other organisational posts are referred to by the Constitution. The frequently used term of `station commissioner` to refer to the officer in charge of a police station irrespective of his or her rank was created as part of the administrative development of the new police service.
In practice this could lead to confusion such as when an incumbent was addressed by his or her post rather than his or her rank. For example, a station commissioner with the rank of Captain, Superintendant or Director would often erroneously be addressed as "Commissioner" when this title should only be used to address a rank reserved only for Assistant Commissioners and above.
It would appear that three major factors are driving the current search in the SAPS for a new identity: firstly, the pressure for more effective policing (including law enforcement) and a safer society; secondly, the dangerous working environment of the police; and thirdly, the apparent loss of morale and discipline within the police. It appears that there is the belief that the kind of discipline that existed in the police before demilitarisation in the mid-nineties could be restored with a return to the status quo ante. It is also believed that a better-disciplined police would be better able to achieve its main objects of combating and preventing crime.
Nevertheless, statements in favour of moving the SAPS from a `service` to a ‘force' did not result in any constitutional or other legislative amendments. This means that in spite of all the talk of rank-change and discipline in the police, on paper the organisation remains a `service` as determined by the Constitution. There is evidence that the change from a `force` to a `service` in other police agencies has been largely superficial and of little practical value. The irony is that attempts at demilitarising the police elsewhere and at aligning the unique police sub-culture with a new `service` and `community oriented` ethos, did nothing to change the dangerous working conditions of the police and their authority to use force, including deadly force, in the execution of their duties.
There can be little doubt that police agencies will always, albeit in varying degrees, exhibit elements of militarism. Like the military, the police are armed and legally authorised to use coercive force when required and justified. They are authorised in particular circumstances to limit the free movement of people and even to arrest and detain; and like the military they normally perform their duties in uniform and visibly display their ranks. It is often argued that these formidable powers and the fact that police officials are forced to operate either alone or in small groups and constantly in extremely dangerous and unpredictable situations, require that they align themselves with the kind of strict discipline, training, and command and control practices that are normally associated with the military. However, the police are also different from the military in many ways. The functions of the police are prescribed by the Constitution and other legislation and are clearly different from that of the military. Unlike the military, the police are normally only lightly armed and their training is focused on their policing functions. The police`s doctrines are also different, for example, in terms of "search and arrest" as opposed to "search and destroy."
The question is what constitutes militarisation of the police? Should the adoption of ranks similar to those of the military and reference to a `force` justify concerns that the police could become an alternative military organisation? Nobody really knows what the threshold is between the police displaying elements of militarism and the military institution itself. What we do know is that we do not want and cannot afford to have an alternative military institution policing our country. We also cannot ignore the unavoidability of militarism in the police. The challenge therefore is in preventing police militarism or elements of it from dragging the police over that undefined threshold. It is for this reason that strong and effective civilian oversight structures such as the Secretariat of Police and the envisaged Independent Police Investigative Directorate are crucial.
Written by: Johan Burger, senior researcher in the Crime and Justice programme, ISS Pretoria