David Bruce

David Bruce: Pictures in the press this week of six policemen standing in the dock in connection with the death of Andries Tatane in Meqheleng, outside Ficksburg, last week, are in many ways a reassuring sign.

Not so long ago we lived in a South Africa where demonstrators would be killed - while protesting peacefully - without any prospect of consequences for the police involved.

The fact that these six police officers have been brought before a court is therefore symbolic of the profound changes in South Africa in the last two decades.

Now that we are living in a democracy, the pictures seem to be saying it is no longer possible for the police to behave in a manner which reflects indifference to the rights of ordinary people.

In fact, these pictures may lead one to believe that, in general, police are held accountable for the misuse of force in South Africa. But this belief is an illusion.

The killing of Tatane is part of an emerging pattern of brutality by police, and comes at a time when the number of killings and serious assaults by members of the force are at extremely high levels.

In most cases where police misuse force, there is no accountability whatsoever.

The reasons for this relate partly to the fact that much policing is carried out in circumstances which are shielded from outside scrutiny.

They also reflect the power police have to obstruct the criminal justice process on those relatively rare occasions when a case is opened against them.

It is not simply that police officers, like everyone else, enjoy the right to remain silent.

Typically, in cases of brutality their colleagues close ranks with them.

An investigation into a case of police brutality often only has some chance of success in the rare cases where there are independent civilian witnesses who are not intimidated by the prospect of giving evidence against the police.

In cases of killings, the police are required to notify the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), but in practice have a high level of discretion as to when exactly to do this.

Police also have the know-how to manipulate evidence.

Where unarmed people are killed, it is not unheard of for police to plant weapons at the scene and then claim they were acting in self-defence.

Prosecutors, too, generally work quite closely with police members, and may therefore soft-peddle cases against SAPS employees.

The fact that we have an ICD in South Africa is clearly some kind of counterweight to the problem of police violence.

But in so far as reliance is placed on the ICD, with its limited human and financial resources, there is little chance of the directorate being able to address the problem in an effective way.

The central issue in ending police brutality is the attitude of police leadership.

Increasing levels of police violence coincided with the emergence of a top brass which had little faith in the idea that a style of policing which emphasised treating people in a fair and respectful way, could be effective in South Africa.

This is manifest in rhetoric from political and police leaders who justify and motivate for an increased reliance on the use of lethal force.

This type of leadership typically involves the occasional statement for public consumption about the need for police to obey the law - while mostly turning a blind eye to how the members of the SAPS actually use force.

With rare exceptions, those on the receiving end of police brutality are young, working-class black men.

Because most of the perpetrators of serious violent crime share the same demographic profile, it is assumed by many members of the public that those assaulted or killed by the police are "criminals", and there is little public sympathy for them.

While it is true that many of the victims of the police's use of force are violent criminals, it is also likely that many of the casualties are not guilty of any crime.

In fact, it is likely that they are merely victims of the type of gratuitous police violence evident in the SABC's Meqheleng video.

However, the concerns of this constituency of young, working-class black men have little political weight. As a result, police brutality usually has little prospect of being anything other than a marginal political issue.

Because of its visible and dramatic manner; the fact that it took place during a public protest; and the unambiguous evidence of excessive force by the police, the killing of Tatane is one of those rare incidents where excessive force by the police leads to a public outcry and consequent political fallout.

The reaction to Tatane's death may help to demonstrate to the leaders of the SAPS the pitfalls of this kind of policing and the failure of understanding about policing in a democracy.

As the politicians know all too well, in a context of widespread anxiety about crime, public sentiment often appears to support harsh policing methods.

In 2009, for instance, TNS Research Surveys found that 54% of interviewees apparently supported a "shoot to kill" policing strategy.

Politicians who take this kind of public sentiment at face value may misinterpret public pressure: politicians may believe that the public doesn't care what methods the police use, as long as they get results.

But this type of policing is not sustainable in a democracy.

Oppressive policing practices will inevitably lead to increasing friction between police and communities. Friction of this kind - and the damage caused to the image of the police by these sorts of incidents - are ultimately fatal to effective policing.

Outside of the context of a totalitarian state, the ultimate determinant of police effectiveness is the level of respect the ordinary person has for police.

Such respect can best be earned through a combination of effectiveness in fighting crime, and visible evidence that the police are committed to high standards of conduct.

Crucially, however, public respect is itself a means of optimising public co-operation, and thus a central factor in enabling police to do their work effectively.

Whatever public sentiment might be, it may be possible to persuade the police to improve the quality of their conduct if they recognised that it helped them be more effective.

This then implies the need for a renewed approach towards dealing with police brutality in South Africa.

First of all, this requires that the SAPS be re-orientated towards an ethos of professionalism in the use of force.

The use of force is crucial to policing, and therefore something which needs to be a focus of the day-to-day management of the SAPS.

A useful tool here could be a use-of-force policy which will guide police on procedures and standards - and which will serve to enshrine the principles of respect for human life; minimum force and proportionality, which underpin professional policing.

Such policies are used by several police agencies internationally as an instrument for commanders to ensure that rank and file members uphold the highest possible standards.

They give priority not only to the way in which the police deal with members of the public but also to the safety of members of the force.

Police services which take pride in the fact that they adhere to high standards when it comes to the use of force, can be more effective in securing public co-operation and, as a result, in getting their jobs done.

To meet these standards they need leaders who believepolice effectiveness can be achieved in this way.

Tatane's death might not be in vain if it serves to drive home this message to the leaders of the SAPS.

  • Bruce is a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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