Altbeker, A., Klipin, J. & Bruce, D. (1999). A New Day? Controlling Police Violence and Corruption. In Crime and Conflict, No. 18, Summer.


by Antony Altbeker, Judy Klipin & David Bruce

In Crime and Conflict, No. 18, pp. 5-9, Summer 1999.

An interview with Carl Klockars and William Geller, two prominent American experts on policing issues. The interview was conducted by Antony Altbeker and Judy Klipin from the Policing Programme at the Wits School of Public and Development Management, and David Bruce from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.1

Interviewers: South Africa is characterized by very high levels of social inequality and poverty, and very high levels of crime, particularly violent crime. We have, for that reason, enormous social and political pressure for the police and the government in general to do something about crime. Very often that need is expressed very crudely about getting tough on criminals.

The SAPS is a large organization, made up of about 130,000 individuals. It is substantially under resourced for instance in terms of technology, vehicles etc. They are under trained and there is also a twin situation of pervasive corruption and widespread brutality.

What would be the sorts of things you would be thinking about in dealing with this situation?

Carl Klockars: As I am sure you're all familiar, the dynamics of controlling force are different from the dynamics of controlling corruption. Corruption, generally speaking, is motivated by gain and force may have wholly different motivations. They are really two different types of phenomena. I believe that in an agency in which corruption is out of control it is not possible to control excessive force. It is possible to have a police agency that is in control with respect to corruption, but not with respect to force.

William Geller: I guess I would step back to the larger context here. Many philosophers and criminologists have observed that societies get the quality of policing that they deserve. Suppose you're in a city where you have rampant corruption and the average way of dealing with a traffic stop, for example, for speeding is to pay off the cop, and the public likes that version of street justice. It's very hard in that context to get a police department which is holier than the community. Similarly, if you have a public which is pervasively involved, whether for legitimate or illegitimately perceived purposes in the use of violence it's very difficult to expect, in the near term, to have a police force which is a whole lot better than the public. So I think that my basic recommendation would be that whatever is done has to be done nationwide or at least community-wide. Which is not to say at all that the community has to clean up its act before the police can, but simply that you gotta move forward in an integrated way with reforms that will deal with reconciliation and violence management.

CK: Let me ask - to what degree is the leadership of the police, either enlightened or prepared to be enlightened to the position that police ought to work in ways that avoid the use of force?

Int: Police management says the right things publicly, although not always interestingly enough. But my overwhelming experience is that the average police officer thinks that all those sorts of statements are made by people who are out to lunch. When you talk to policemen and their defenses are down, very rapidly they'll say to you, "look, this is South Africa. It's a frontier town. The only language that people understand is the language of force." And they'll say that really at the levels of middle management which is the level of management which counts in this regard. So I think that there is a prevailing sense, that excessive force is something that is required to police South Africa.

CK: If I can respond to that, that is exactly the sentiment you will find amongst police officers in the United States. But you hear it in departments which have problems with the use of force and police agencies which don't.

But I suspect what you'd find to be different is a difference in the matter of degree. While certain types of use of force would probably be regarded as necessary and routine among South African police, the level of necessary and routine force that American police accept, particularly in large cities in America, is different and it can be changed.

WG: What you need at each level of the organisation of command and not just at the top level is people who are not legitimately subject to the criticism that they are out to lunch. Many of them may be out to lunch depending on whether they've forgotten on their way up the career ladder all the things they've learned on the street.

Take, for example Washington, D.C. now, where the police department has been criticized as having something like 4 to 5 times the rate of use of deadly force of other major American cities. It's a little bit helpful that the police chief who's been brought in as an outside reformer can look right back in the eyes of the police officers who are complaining both privately and in the major national media here that nobody understands the police officer's plight and nobody understands the necessity to use deadly force until you've been in their shoes. It's very helpful as it turns out that the police chief himself early in his career had to kill somebody. So he can say "I've been there and you can't blow this past me, you know there's many different ways to do this". I'm not saying that you need police leaders literally who have used force themselves, but they have to be people who can deploy people who are respected as really understanding the streets and finding a better way to do it.

One of the powerful things that's also happening in the United States is that we're having some very helpful early studies coming out that reveal that cities that have used a much more humane and much more problem-oriented approach to solving crime problems - using the hammer when the hammer is the right tool, but using other tools when they are better and more efficient, and less likely to over stuff the jails - those cities are having just as dramatic double digit crime decreases as cities like New York, where you have the same kind of saber rattling that I'm sure is characterizing your current situation. So to the extent you can find credible examples that there are good ways to do effective policing and do it with minimal violence, I think that will help to rebut those complaints by the cops.

CK: The only thing I would add to that is that police are remarkably ingenious in creating explanations of why somebody who once understood the reality of the street no longer does. And despite your best efforts at putting into positions people who ought to have credibility, they will find reasons to undermine it.

My own orientation towards this is that you must have, at the top, leadership which is committed to a very simple policy. And that simple policy is we're going to try to do everything we can in this agency to handle situations in ways that minimize the use of force. That's going to be the standard for good police work around here.

Int: Those civilian review bodies that some of your police services have. To what degree are they effective?

WG: I think the way to think about civilian oversight - you have to see it on a spectrum of mechanisms. Start with self-restraint, which is obviously the most powerful form of restraint if you can provide incentive for it, to peer pressure, to pressure from supervisors and the command staff within the agency, to external formal authorities, like an oversight panel, all the way through formal, external procedures, like civil court actions or criminal prosecutions. So I don't think it's one or the other. I think you need the entire range of apparatuses.

As to civilian review, I think the picture in the States has been very mixed. There have been a number of studies which suggest that police, when properly motivated - and that's not a small point in the context of South Africa - tend to be a lot tougher on their own, in terms of finding fault and imposing severe punishment, than do these external oversight panels. That's not universally the case, but that's a pattern of findings.

CK: I think Bill is right. As far as I know, the best research shows that the police impose higher standards on themselves than do these external review boards.

If I had to come down on the side of any one thing in reducing police misconduct, whether it's excessive force or corruption, it's opening the police department in as many ways as is possible to public scrutiny. And that would include citizen review of complaints, opening police department records, opening the agency itself to people observing in that agency - I think it was our Justice Brandeis who once said that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant. And I think that applies in spades to the police. The more open you can make the police organization the more difficult it will be to hide either kind of misconduct. So in general, I'm all for that and all for involving citizens in one way or another in the operation of the police agency.

Now, the police themselves, not without cause, are very fearful that these positions will be used by agitators and by people who are unfairly prejudiced against the police, against them. But I think those things can be overcome and I think on balance, they're very useful.

WG: Well, the way to have your cake and eat it too, I think, is to adopt a model for review which puts heavy emphasis on the accountability of the leadership of the police department to do its own review and to reach its own determinations and then have an external body which has whatever range of powers is necessary in order to achieve credibility. I would never let the cops off the hook for doing their own investigations, but I would allow the external body to have the power to take a look - whether it's on a systematic basis or it's on a spot-checking kind of basis - so that they can attest to the legitimacy and the effectiveness and indeed the efficiency of the internal process.

Int: In South Africa we don't have much confidence in internal investigations. You seem to have a sense that internal investigations can work. What is it that gets internal investigations to work?

CK: If somebody came to me and said, "I'm considering taking a job as chief of this police department. If I take it, what terms should I establish under which to take it?" One of the first things I'd tell him or her is that you must have the head of internal affairs report directly to you, unfiltered by anybody else. And then you tell that head of internal affairs that you want to know everything. It is only when you have the person in charge of internal affairs, who you have that confidence is going to use all of the investigative resources that that person has to get to the bottom of incidents that you can control and know what's going on in a police department. If you don't have that, if the internal affairs division is populated by police officers who are not about to blow the whistle on others, if you have people who are worried that their own careers are going to be compromised, then you're lost in that situation.

What larger police agencies have done, by the way, is to create a career track in internal affairs which is separate from the police agency at large. This means that once you join internal affairs, this is where you're going to spend the rest of your life. So you create this kind of group of untouchables, within a police agency, with a separate career track from the rest.

WG:That may well be the best idea for South Africa given the problems that you've described. In a less challenging environment, for example, one in which Carl and I are doing a case study now of the causes of the success of police integrity rather than causes of failure, working in internal affairs is part of a rising star's career.

Int: Could you say a bit about issues concerning training and the use of force?

WG: Let me give you one example of the kind of things you have to be sensitive to. It's one of thousands of examples. Sometimes, well intentioned training to help police develop tactical skills can cross the boundary and instead of inspiring appropriate caution, can inspire paranoia on the police and can lead to greater use of force.

For example, one infamous training video has been used pervasively in the United States on how police officers can survive attacks with knives and other cutting instruments. It features gory depictions of police having been sliced up by adversaries and has inflexible advice to police on what they must do, and de-emphasizes any creative sort of options for how officers might better be able to protect themselves and not put themselves in a position where they're that close to an armed opponent. A number of police chiefs publicly criticized the use of videos like that in their training academies.

CK: One of the things that we found in our very, very recent research is that police regard the incidents of force that we described as more serious and believe that they should be disciplined and would be disciplined more severely than do a sample of university students we surveyed.

That's a very surprising finding. What it says about training in the area of the use of force, is not to control bad or evil instincts. Normal human instincts, if they are imported into the police situation, turn out to be bad ones. That is, the normal, healthy, red-blooded American (our South African) male - will respond with anger if somebody calls me a name. That's a normal response. By contrast, what you train police to have and what you hope police will have is a restraint and an attitude towards these things which urges restraint that is greater than that of the normal citizen.

So what you have to keep in mind in the training process is that the real task in police training is training to a higher standard than we would expect of normal citizens. That is, in fact, the reason we have police. We have police because we can't depend on normal citizens to do that kind of work with the level of restraint that in a modern democratic society we have every right to expect.

Int: If I can ask you to just say a bit about administrative review? What type of mechanisms do you have in mind to ensure effective review of the use of force?

CK:The management of the use of force, ought to be an organizational responsibility in which each level of the organization is involved. It should start with a statement of a policy, which says unequivocally that it is the policy of this agency that its officers will work in ways that minimize the need to use force. Then the organization must provide an administrative structure in which that kind of policy is constantly developed and enforced throughout the agency.

With respect to the administrative structure. On each occasion on which you have a police use of force, you write a use of force report. And at the end of that report, the immediate supervisor of the officer reaches one of 3 conclusions. The use of force was justified and appropriate: fine, no further problem; The use of force was a violation of the agency policy, it was wrong: you refer that for further investigation to internal affairs; Or the use of force was consistent with agency policy, but an alternative approach would have been desirable - one which might have avoided the use of force. And it's that third option that you want officers to consider. You want a supervisor to look at that. Use that supervisor's skill and history in policing and say, is there a way that this could have been handled better? You don't punish the officer. You simply say, "Is this the best way it could have been done?"

If that sergeant can't find that "way" that report then goes up to a lieutenant. The lieutenant reads the case and says, wait a minute, it didn't have to happen this way - that police officer could have handled it this way. And so it's that engine which you want to get going in police agencies, It mobilizes the skills of the police officers. Teaches those skills it in a non-punitive way, and explicitly and emphatically recognizes the fact that the skill of policing consists in finding ways to avoid the use of force.

But you've got to have a dedication to that idea at the top, and that dedication at the top has to be forced in at least the initial stages on those levels below. So that even if it gets all the way up to a position of captain or major and nobody in the agency says that they can see any other ways that this could have been done without using force, that captain or major's got to step forward and say, wait a minute, are you telling me that the only way you could've done this is this way? No. And that's the way that engine gets mobilized.

It doesn't have to be done with a great deal of sophistication. In fact, it ought to be done in the language of policing, and in the language of the streets about how you can do this without having to force used on yourself, on other people, without you getting hurt, without other people getting hurt, about smart policing. I think that should be done fully in the language of police.

Police officers are not receptive to being told how to do their work by people like college professors and administrators who have been out of the business of policing or off the street for years. But they will respect skilled police officers who are doing the same work they do every day. The trick is to get those skilled officers to teach other officers skilled policing. "Force is the core of the police role," a famous police scholar by the name of Egon Bittner once said, "and the skill of policing involves finding ways to avoid its use."

WG: In your notes on Carl's point, please go to the word "non-punitive" and capitalize it, underline it three times. Obviously Carl and I would endorse punishment of officers who have knowingly done wrong things. But in terms of moving forward, one of the things that seems to me would be absolutely critical for you as it is for all governmental authorities and non-governmental agencies trying to improve the police use of force decisions is to avoid simply feeding material to the obstructionists in the ranks. And the best thing you could do for them, if you wanted to defeat your own cause, would be to unfairly promote a scapegoating of police officers when the primary failure that resulted in an unwanted use of force was inappropriate or inadequate training or policy or equipment or dispatching or assignment patterns.

Int: What has been done to overcome problems where supervisors have themselves been tainted by these sorts of problems in the past? They become viewed as hypocritical. Now they are aggressively going after people who are doing the same thing as they did in the past. How does one start to build the confidence of those managers who are going to be in a bit of an invidious position ?

WG: With a force of 130,000, you can't avoid putting people with problematic backgrounds in some positions of authority. You certainly can avoid putting them, if you have the power to do this, in the top positions of authority, in the most crucial sensitive positions. The second point is that we need to talk in very realistic terms about redemption and growth. You're not replacing 130,000 cops. You're dealing with the force which has behaved badly in the past, under a different socio-political ethos, and now you want them to turn a corner and behave differently. So there needs to be some very practical, on the ground, sensible way of talking about the ability of people to implement a new set of standards.

CK: I think you simply say, it's a new day. Police in America are not being asked to make the level of radical transformation that the police in South Africa are being asked to make. But they've made many transitions that to them are of the similar proportions. We live in a different time. In many departments that I'm working with, 15 years ago or 20 years ago, if you were verbally attacked by a citizen, you knocked them down. You don't do that today. And there are supervisors who will punish officers for knocking that person down today who will admit that in their day on the streets, that's the way they handled it. You've got to simply say that now the rules are different. It's a new day.

WG: In many cases, simpler is better. Just say it. And then enforce it. And make examples of people - make heroes of people and make villains of people for their reaction to the new day.


1 Carl B. Klockars is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. William A. Geller is the Director of Geller & Associates, a consulting firm which works with police and community organisations to help advance policing that fosters democracy. The interview is edited by David Bruce. Thanks are due to the United States Information Service who provided the facilities, to Judith Sowerby of United States Public Affairs who assisted with organising the interview, and to Susan Chung for assistance with the transcription.

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