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Rethinking the police

From the infamous LAPD to London’s notorious Special Patrol Group and even further back — two centuries ago to the first ever newspaper reports of “police brutality” — all police forces exist along a continuum of violence.

Leaving corruption aside South Africa’s police tend towards the direst part. We may not have the death penalty but we have hundreds of deaths in custody. The statistics on fatal shootings, rape and torture are stomach-turning. Protestors are routinely assaulted and fired upon. There are allegations of hit squads operating in several provinces. Even lawyers, as an Amnesty International report documents, are being threatened.

Much might be made of the incitement of both cadres and politicians, or that the police are technically incompetent and styled in the manner of a paramilitary. But there is also extensive global evidence of police misconduct that points to a wider “police culture” problem.

There is something about a person in a uniform, sanctioned by the state to use deadly force, which frequently lends an air of arrogance that they are above the law. The “blue code of silence” is an American phrase that describes how the police close ranks to protect their colleagues from investigation. If they are (largely because of media reporting) subjected to scrutiny, they often get away with bureaucratic penalties for what, normally, would be considered felonies.

In a 2006 review, commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, short shrift is made of the “bad apple” argument as a means of explaining away abuse of office. Among the systemic factors that the study considers is one that maintains that “the more rigid the hierarchy, the lower the scores on a measure of ethical decision-making”.

Such insights (much like Stanley Milgram’s famous laboratory experiment that allowed some subjects to administer ever-increasing electric shocks to others) suggest that we don’t just require a judicial inquiry into the SAPS, we need a re-evaluation of the entire institution.

It is easy in a crime-ridden and macho society to be cynical about alternatives but as gang truces, rape crisis centres and restorative justice programmes demonstrate — they do exist.

Instead of a thin blue line, civilians need to be more prominently involved.

When you go to a police station there is no reason why a member of the local community couldn’t be your first contact: routine matters (affidavits, case dockets and requests) could be handled by somebody with a modicum of education.

Similarly, the overall management of a station doesn’t require a firearm or any rank — a good social worker would be better. Indeed, social work is what is required in the majority of cases dealing with delinquency, neighbourhood conflicts and substance abuse.

Where force is necessary a professional unit, accompanied by local persons of moral authority, would be dispatched. Their first duty would be to de-escalate the situation; their last — in dialogue with both the community and the offenders — to reflect on their actions. In addition, this preliminary mediation might determine whether further (costly) court proceedings are even required.

While detective work doesn’t have to be specialised, forensics necessarily does. Given the habitual tampering with evidence, not to mention the justice-defeating backlogs, independent parties would best carry it out.

Including policing within the precincts of community and social work would also be good for all those engaged. Open communication — not silence — would make the post-traumatic pressures more bearable. Transparency would, at the same time, help support those who speak out against their wayward colleagues or neighbours.

Politically too, there would be advantages:

Even in democratic countries, the police conspire with elites and in times of social revolution they are among the very last to accept that the old order is no longer serviceable. Closing the distance between them and us, as well as dismantling hierarchies, would make policing less susceptible to being manipulated.

We need a new compass, these are dark days.

This post (written before the Marikana massacre) first appeared on the website and was republished by the Cape Times. Follow Chris Rodrigues on twitter: @klaaskatkop.