A Review of Community Policing

A Review of Community Policing

Mistry, D. (1997). A Review of Community Policing. In Policing the Transformation: Further issues in South Africa's crime debate, Institute for Security Studies Monograph No. 12, April.


Duxita Mistry, Researcher, Criminal Justice Policy Unit,
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

Published in Monograph No. 12, Policing the Transformation, April 1997

This paper attempts to examine progress made in community policing since its introduction in 1994. The adoption of community policing has to be understood against the background of the massive shortcomings of the 'old' policing system; therefore, policing before 1994 is briefly analysed in order to sketch why the new approach was adopted. Next, given that community policing is an attempt to overcome the shortcomings of the past, this paper will try to establish its effect to date.


Policing before the transition can be described as rules-based. Police behaviour, responsibilities and duties were determined by rules, regulations and hierarchies rather than initiative, discretion and consultation. The manifestations of rules-based policing were a militaristic style, both in dress and attitude towards communities. Police enforced and upheld the laws promulgated by the previous government. They could not use their discretion; as a result, consulting communities on policing matters was never considered. The style of policing was largely reactive, or rather incident-driven. This style permitted a lack of transparency in the old South African Police (SAP). As a result, the net effect of rules-based policing was that it lacked credibility among its supposed beneficiaries. Being incident-driven also meant that policing was inefficient, and failed to prevent crime. The end result was an enormous burden being placed on the police as well as the judicial and correctional system.

The police force also became associated with abuses of human rights, and when the government of national unity assumed power in 1994 it decided there was a fundamental need to restructure it. Community policing was identified as one mechanism for achieving this; it was hoped this new approach would overcome some of the inherent deficiencies of rules-based policing.


Policy-makers envisaged an entirely new style of policing, in which rules would play a less important role. Greater consultation and participation by communities were envisaged. Police work was to become more transparent, thus ensuring that the police would become more accountable for their actions; proactive policing would hopefully lead to more effective crime prevention.

The framework for the restructuring of the police force – including the introduction of community policing – was set out in the interim constitution1 and the South African Police Services Act (hereafter referred to as the Police Act).2 The objectives of the renamed South African Police Service were set out in the interim constitution. Section 215 stated that the police had to prevent crime, investigate any offence or alleged offence, maintain law and order, and preserve internal security. The Police Act provided for liaison with communities through community police forums (CPFs).3

The goals of community policing have been spelt out in detail in a draft national policy document, released in 1996 by the national ministry of safety and security.4 It states that the "main objective of community policing is to establish and maintain an active partnership between the police and the public through which crime, its causes and other safety-related issues can jointly be determined and appropriate solutions designed and implemented".5

The document identifies "two main pillars of community policing, namely the active partnership between the police and the community, and the strategy of problem-solving". It states: "In order to enhance and promote an active partnership, it is of utmost importance that sound police–community relations exist."6 In order to accomplish this task, it says, 'strategic tools which are important building blocks for such a partnership' have been identified.7 These are "the enhancement of human relations, a community-sensitive and user-friendly police service, consultation on the needs of communities, respect for human rights, cultural sensitivity, continuous positive contact with community members, discretion on the part of police officers when they enforce the law, and the establishment of mechanisms to enhance the accountability and transparency of the police".8

The document also describes law enforcement as only one of a range of tools to be used by police officials in crime prevention. "In some instances," it says, "alternatives to invoking the criminal justice process (eg warnings, victim-offender mediation or referral for counselling) may allow for a far more acceptable, effective and efficient solution of the problem."9 In other cases, "law enforcement action may exacerbate a problem instead of solving it".10 The document emphasises that alternatives "should be developed where appropriate to augment and even replace law enforcement action, and that police officials should be encouraged to develop and use such alternatives in appropriate circumstances".11 This is a positive development in policing, and a significant departure from the previous modus operandi.

In the United States, Ensor has written, of the "array of problems the police are called upon to handle, relatively few require solely a 'law enforcement' response". Therefore, "community policing provides law enforcement an opportunity to form new partnerships, and carries with it the potential for long-term solutions to persistent problems". 12 As the police expert Herman Goldstein has observed, "once police stop looking only at the criminal justice system for solutions, large vistas are opened for exploration", and the police can engage in a "far-reaching and imaginative search for alternative ways in which to respond to commonly recurring problems, uncurtailed by prior thinking".13

This is a very important point for police officials in South Africa to internalise. The concept of 'community engagement' ties in very neatly here. Having moved beyond the standard idea of community policing meaning building better community–police relations, community engagement is now understood as a "meaningful engagement in that officers share their power and proprietary interest in handling neighbourhood problems".14
These new bodies were to serve as mechanisms for improving relations between communities and the police. This was done in order to re-establish respect for the law, in the context of repealing discriminatory legislation. Communities would now have a say in how they wanted to be 'policed'.



"It is nearly three years since the notion of community policing began circulating among South African critics of the apartheid police. It is almost two and a half years since the community policing division of the SAP was formed. It is two years since the legislative framework for community policing was laid down by the interim constitution, and seven months since the South African Police Services Act came into operation. It is time to take stock of why we are where we are …"15

As Scharf suggests, an assessment of community policing is necessary to ensure that the change of direction is appropriate. If not, the SAPS may continue to suffer from a lack of legitimacy, and may remain alienated from the community it is supposed to serve. In 1994 the Policing Research Project (PRP) participated in the Gauteng Community Policing Project, in which police stations in Gauteng were audited and a number of (randomly selected) police officials of different ranks interviewed on various issues. These included:

  • the communities they serve;
  • the crime in a particular police station area;
  • internal organisational issues; and
  • what they understood by the term community policing, among other things.

Most of the officials interviewed understood 'community policing' to mean that the community should help them prevent crime; in fact, many thought the concept was synonymous with combating crime. This was prevalent from the level of the station commissioner down to constables. For instance, one senior police official stated:

"Community policing is a partnership between the community and the police that is entered into to manage the policing of a particular area and to offer the police a means of being transparent and … more acceptable thereby assisting with fighting crime."16

However, crime prevention is just one of many components of community policing. Very few respondents acknowledged that community policing was a new style of policing entailing a problem-solving orientation, transparency, and accountability. Consequently, as stated by a senior Gauteng safety and security official, the police were "not becoming more accountable to the communities".17 This may be attributed to the fact that police officials do not always live in the areas in which they work; therefore, they do not feel part of these communities. If they did, they might be more committed to make the area the serve a safer place to live. Moreover, they would feel more accountable to the community, provide a better service, and the chances of them being involved in corruption would be reduced, for fear of the social repercussions. The golden rule of community policing, according to the draft policy document, is for the "community to know the police, and police officials to know their communities".18

Another senior police official interviewed recognised the need to involve communities more actively in the actual running of a police station. He commented: "Community policing means greater community involvement in running the police station. The community should be totally involved, so that it knows what the police are there for, what the structures are at the station, and the numbers available for policing – therefore, also a completely transparent approach. The community must feel free to approach the police."19 The police must be able to deal honestly and openly with members of the community. An ability to admit mistakes and explain their actions will be an asset to the police service. The police need to move away from their police culture, and give members of the community a chance to scrutinise their activities. This is where CPFs can play a meaningful role.

A further purpose of CPFs, among others, is "to promote communication and co-operation in order to fulfil the needs of the community".20 They allow communities to intervene, without assuming the role and functions of the police service. The community is the client, and the police the service providers. Therefore, the needs of the community must be taken into account. The police must ensure that they provide an efficient and effective service.


Human rights violations by police officials have led to numerous protests over the years, resulting in censure by international agencies such as Amnesty International. To ensure that community policing becomes a reality, the issue of human rights must be addressed in the SAPS. The draft national policy document acknowledges the need to create a human rights culture among police officials. It states: "[Since the] stability of a country, and the vitality and continuity of democratic ideals is dependent upon policing which is constantly concerned with maintaining the sensitive balance between collective security and individual freedom and never yields to the temptation to betray principles by using unlawful methods in order to achieve success."21 Training can transform the ethos of individual police officials. As a result, in the South African context, training becomes inordinately important.

An evaluation of the curriculum for basic training at the Police College in Pretoria has found that there are components of human rights in each course, but human rights is not taught as a subject on its own.22 Therefore, it can be assumed that the students are not well equipped to understand the essentials of human rights. The National Human Rights Education Forum has plans to provide human rights education for all police officials at station level. This will be done in three phases: basic, intermediate and advanced. In due course, a business plan will be submitted to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) office, with a request for funding. The monitoring and evaluation of human rights education for police will be essential, since it is value-based. This view is supported by the draft national policy document, which states: "Community policing seeks to create a culture of respect for human rights and also to empower police officials to effectively deal with conflict, primarily through non-violent means."23

In 1995 the PRP participated in a project aimed at evaluating the new elements of basic training designed to promote community policing. Police recruits – the first batch to be trained in community policing – were interviewed in focus groups to establish what their impressions of the basic training programme were. The study was commissioned by the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA) in Southern Africa, and undertaken by the Training Evaluation Group (TEG).24

At that time, the group's final report states, "the idea and practice [of community policing] had not yet taken shape throughout the country, and as a consequence there was no common understanding about how to implement the principles [the trainees] had learnt at college".25

When the trainees were questioned on their understanding of community policing, they "admitted struggling with putting the principles of transparency, consultation, community service and accountability into practice".26 Even their mentors "had difficulty in operationalising the principles on which daily assessment was based".27In some stations that were considered 'rough' or 'busy', station trainees were of the view that community policing is not applicable in those areas, as the lives of policemen and women were constantly in danger."28

Despite these difficulties, the trainees saw themselves as change agents and a "special new generation of police officers, who had a duty to the SAPS and the country to be bearers of the new police persona".29 The report continued: "The trainees were firmly of the view that they were not 'contaminated' by the 'old guard' at the stations, but instead were able to win some of them over, or at the very least were able to share their ideas about the new era and ethos of policing."30

The fact that these recruits displayed little overt resistance to the idea of community policy bodes well for the transformation of the police service. However, concern has been expressed that, one they face the realities of police work, they will be intimidated by more experienced officials, and 'forget' what they have learnt.

While the importance of training has to be acknowledged, so does the lack of capacity of the SAPS to offer in-service training. NGOs, because of their close association with communities and CBOs and their resultant credibility in those communities, can help substantially to meet the service's training needs.
Even within the scope of the range of misunderstandings about community policing, the report states, application of these concepts were uneven. "



Although community policing was only introduced two years ago, the effect of community policing to date must be measured. The fact that CPFs exist around most police stations in Gauteng should not be taken as an indication that community policing is working, or is being implemented. Furthermore, crime statistics cannot be used to measure the success or failure of community policing. In fact, there has been an increase in reported cases of some serious crimes, such as rape and child abuse. Perhaps this is because communities now have greater confidence in the ability of the police to investigate and solve crimes. People also expect the police to deal with victims more sensitively, due to the media coverage given to the launch of the Gender Sensitivity Training Programme. Jessie Duarte, MEC for safety and security in Gauteng, has publicly expressed her support of this training initiative, conducted by NGOs for the SAPS.

However, training itself is not enough, and its expected benefits can falter through resistance. Perhaps the old policing system attracted certain types of personalities which are resistant to change and notions such as community participation. Such personalities depend on structure and certainties. If this is correct, then these officials are caught between upholding the law and exercising their discretion. It could be assumed that they are waiting to be told how to use their discretion, but no one is doing that. Police officials in South Africa are not accustomed to using discretion in the course of their work. This is a result of the many standing orders and regulations designed to regulate the work of police officials. Police officials have to be empowered to use their individual discretion.

In practice, as a senior Gauteng safety and security official stated, they do not use their discretion 'at all' because they are 'too concerned with procedure'.31 Station commissioners said they "need more powers in order to make decisions, but this is actually unnecessary: they are afraid to make decisions".32 This, the official said, stemmed from the way in which the police operated before.33

Senior management and those higher up the ladder have always told those below what to do and how to do it. Decisions on policing could not be made without prior consultation. The draft policy document acknowledges that police officials "value procedures (how the job is done) more than results (the nature of the services delivered to the public)".34 Furthermore, the document warns that this will have to change.

Therefore, in South Africa the police still have to become accustomed to community policing, and learn, in this context, how to use their discretion to find alternative solutions to problems. Although police recruits are given courses in diversity and communication skills, it does not adequately prepare them for work at police stations.

As Glensor states: "In order to reduce resistance and improve officers' skills for confronting today's problems, training is required in interpersonal communication, cultural diversity, resource identification, and community mobilisation."35

Can we therefore assume that community policing has failed thus far, due to a lack of training? Ultimately, intercultural communication, conflict resolution and negotiation skills are needed by recruits as well as officials who have been in the service for some time.


When community policing was introduced, police feared that members of the community would take over their police stations and tell them what to do. The introduction of mechanisms enforcing transparency are breaking down old-style 'rules-based' policing. However erratically, community policing and CPFs are ensuring greater transparency at a local level.

The rapid transformation of the SAPS resulted in confusion, misconceptions, and resistance to community policing and CPFs. This confusion was aggravated by a lack of 'official' clarity on what exactly community policing entailed. The policy document on community policing was only developed last year, three years after the changes in the SAPS began.

To conclude, the success of community policing should be measured in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of the SAPS. It is difficult to ascertain with any certainty whether or not progress has been made; however, the experience of the PRP suggests that it has not.


  1. Act 200 of 1993.
  2. Act 68 of 1995.
  3. s18 (1)
  4. National Ministry of Safety and Security: Draft policy document on the philosophy of community policing, 1996.
  5. Ibid, p 1.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid, p 13.
  11. Ibid.
  12. R W Glensor, Community problem-solving in the USA: a new synergy, Police Research Group, Home Office Police Department, Number 7, March 1996, p 1.
  13. Quoted in Ibid.
  14. Ibid, p 14.
  15. W Scarf, 'Community policing – a preliminary critical analysis', paper presented at the workshop on community policing, Technikon SA, 7 May 1996, p 15.
  16. Interview with senior police official, 1994.
  17. Interview with Sally Sealy, deputy director: facilitation, Gauteng secretariat for safety and security, 1994.
  18. Draft national policy document, p 15–16.
  19. Interview with senior police official, 1994.
  20. South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995, s18(1)
  21. Draft national policy document, p 9.
  22. Evaluation report: Curriculum for basic training, compiled by Dr Elise Engelbrecht, November 1995.
  23. Draft national policy document, p 9.
  24. Final Evaluation Report of the Training Evaluation Group, July 1995, p 1.
  25. Ibid, p 137
  26. Ibid, p 138
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid, p 142.
  30. Ibid, p 141.
  31. Interview with Sealy.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Draft national policy document, p 9.
  35. Glensor, Community problem-solving in the USA, p 14.
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