Stresses in the South African Police Service

Stresses in the South African Police Service

Marks, M. (1995). Stresses in the South African Police Service. Paper presented to Stress Management Self-help Group for Police in Soweto, Protea Police Station, June.


Monique Marks

Input for Stress Management Self-help Group for Police in Soweto held at Protea Police Station, 5 June 1995.

Monique Marks is a former Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Being a police officer in South Africa in the past, and currently, is probably the most stressful area of work in our country. I would like to identify some key areas which may give rise to stress in the police service. I hope that these are useful in identifying your own stress related issues. I have no doubt that I will not unable to adequately cover all the areas which give rise to stress amongst police officers, particularly since I myself am not from the police service.

Changes in the South African Police Service

As we as South Africans move towards a more democratic dispensation, it is clear that many changes need to be made in all institutions of our country. The police service is probably the key institution for change for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the past, the South African Police were central to ensuring the maintenance of apartheid. As we know, police personnel at all levels were involved in attempts to undermine the mass democratic movement. It is well documented and publicly acknowledged that police were involved in the detention, torture and harassment of political activists opposing the apartheid state. Police have also been implicated in hit-squad activities and the deaths of key activists.

While many police officers may have opposed the involvement of the police in human right violations, the fact remains that the image of South African police is poor, particularly within black communities in South Africa. The new challenge to the police is to move away from their problematic past to becoming a police service which ensures that the Bill of Rights and the new Constitution is upheld in South Africa. Police have to move away from serving a white minority, towards ensuring peace and safety for all citizens of South Africa.

Secondly, while the police force has historically employed a majority of black officers, these appointments have largely been of low rank in the South African Police Force. Black police officers have experienced extreme difficulties with regard to promotion, and the management of the police service remains largely white. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity and gender has been stark within the police service giving rise to much dissatisfaction amongst police officers in South Africa. Consequently promotions, recruitment and training need to change dramatically in the police service to ensure that all police officers are treated equally and past imbalances addressed. The new South African Police Service needs to reflect the population of South Africa, and communities need to develop faith in the police operating in their areas.

The past problems of the police service are immense and the change process underway, while acknowledged as necessary by most police workers, is a difficult task. Change in any form leads to insecurity, and brings with it much pain and anxiety. The stresses which emerge from change are experienced by both black and white police officers, and within all ranks of the police service. Questions have been raised as to who the new management of the police service will be, who will be promoted, and who will be identified as perpetrators of human rights violations in the past.

While changes in the police service cannot be disputed, police officers have to deal with new management not only at a national and provincial level, but also at the level of area commissioner and station commanders. Many of you will now have to deal with unfamiliar management and may feel discomfort at working with people who have a different style of managing and new ideas as to how policing should be carried out. It is extremely stressful to have to come to terms with people with whom you are unfamiliar and whom you require time to develop trusting working relationships.

Furthermore, new recruits into the police service have undergone basic training which is vastly different from the training that many long standing police officers experienced on joining the police force. This means that all police officers are having to deal with colleagues who have a completely different approach to policing. This is stressful both for longstanding police officers and for new recruits who often have to confront old and entrenched modes of policing. Police officers nationally are being asked to practise community policing whereby police and the community work together in combatting and preventing crime. This poses many challenges to police officers who have become accustomed to working independently of the community. It is also a huge challenge to communities who for the most part are suspicious of police in South Africa as a result of their past activities. The fact that police have also been implicated in many criminal activities does not assist in developing proper community-policing relations.

Community Police Forums have been set up in almost all areas in Gauteng. However, these are for the most part not functioning effectively owing to the poor relationships that existed in the past between police and the communities they were supposed to be serving. There is currently a lot of despondency from both the police and the community with regards these forums which are experiencing huge problems in getting off the ground. However, there is pressure from provincial ministries and commissioners who are eager to see CPFs functioning effectively at all police stations. Community policing itself is not a soft option. It is incredibly difficult to "unlearn" old methods of policing and develop a whole new attitude and way of policing. There is also a challenge to ensure that these forums are properly representative of communities and that community policing officers report to their stations as to decisions taken in such forums.

At present, many Community Police Officers do not seem to be reporting back to their stations about decisions taken in these forums. Consequently communities are beginning to feel that their participation is not taken seriously by the police. Police officers also feel that many Community Police Officers are appointed as a result of their ranking within the SAPS. These police officers are not always regarded as appropriate representatives of the police by fellow workers in the service.

The police service is currently obliged to implement affirmative action at all levels. This has proved stressful to both white and black police officers. White police officers may feel that they will be excluded from promotion in the future as a result of affirmative action. At the same time, black officers in most areas still complain of discriminatory treatment in the police service. The recent incidence at the Orlando police station where police management was accused of being racist, and demonstrations led to the death of a black police officer, is a case in point. Feelings of fear, resentment and frustration experienced by both white and black police officers are real and cannot be wished away. It is up to all of you to ensure that change in the service is dealt with openly and with sensitivity to all parties concerned.

Images of a Good Police Officer

In South Africa, and in many other countries across the world, it is accepted that to be a good police officer a number of qualities need to be portrayed. Firstly, there is a common belief that a police officer should be physically strong, masculine and muscular. Effective police are believed to be those who work on the streets as opposed to in offices, and should have a strong record of arrests which may involve brute force. This popular image of a police person is stressful for those members who are perhaps small in build, not very muscular and, who work in offices or behind a desk.

The consequence of this popular image is that many effective police offices who prefer not to use brute force, and work more effectively behind the scenes, are often the recipients of discrimination not only from management in terms of promotion, but also from peers and colleagues. This is particularly damaging to police officers who are women, those who are more passive, and are of a smaller frame. The police world is essentially one of big forceful men. Those who do not conform are often excluded from informal social networks and are left feeling inadequate and less important in terms of police work.

Hopefully with the practice of community policing, these images will begin to decline and police contribution will be evaluated based on members' contribution to safety and security in local communities. A friendly, soft-spoken police officer should carry as much status and recognition as those who are more directly involved in crime combat and street patrol. It should be noted that many police officers suffer in silence as a result of being excluded from the important "boys club".

Daily Police Work

The work of a police officer, as we all know, is often exhausting, dangerous, and even traumatic. Police are generally at the receiving end of all community problems. They are expected to bring about law and order in very difficult situations. They are the people who put their lives at risk as soon as they leave home every day. Police are also often more in touch with extremely painful issues in the community. Police are expected to deal with child abuse, wife battery, and rape. Police are also the ones who are called out to the scene of a murder or assault. Being witness to these horrific circumstances is incredibly stressful and can at times lead to feelings of depression and disillusionment.

Police officers in townships such as Soweto are also placed under far more stress than those in the suburbs. The townships are in fact where most violent crimes are carried out. Furthermore, police officers in townships are exposed to extreme poverty and hardship on a daily basis. This in itself can be very depressing since they live with the knowledge that people's lives are very harsh, and that the prospect of fundamental change is unlikely in the near future. Police in the townships are constantly confronted with growing levels of crime which it seems will not diminish for a very long period of time. Those police officers who live in the areas in which they work, may in fact be familiar with both the victims and the perpetrators of crime. This in itself is difficult to deal with.

Police officers often feel that they are unable to speak to their families and friends about their experiences while on duty. This can result in feelings of isolation by police officers. These feelings are taken back to the home lives of police workers. Within their home lives, police officers often feel misunderstood and may be placed under further stress as a result of domestic responsibilities. The consequence of this is a high rate of divorce amongst police workers – particularly those whose spouses are not members of the police service. In more extreme cases, these feelings of isolation and despair can lead to suicide. According to Lt-Col Buys of the Statistics SA at the Head Quarters of the South African Police Service, in 1994, one hundred and eighty for South African Police committed suicide.

Lack of Acknowledgement

Despite the extremely difficult work that police do and their attempt to "clean up their act", police in South Africa receive little or no acknowledgement for their work. In particular, lower ranking police officers are paid poor salaries; have low status within the service; and are generally given no positive feedback and encouragement from their superiors. While in most other countries internationally, police are recognised for their important work and are paid decent wages as civil servants due to their "special" work, in South Africa this is not the case. If anything, police workers are seen as being unproductive members of the civil service. They are definitely given less status than other professionals in the civil service such as teachers and nurses. This is unfair and discouraging for police officers.

Furthermore, police are given little respect or positive feedback from the communities they serve. Police are treated with suspicion and even when they do good work, are not adequately recognised by members of the community. While this was understandable in the past, there continues to be daily attacks by members of the community on police officers. Each day we read and hear about the murders of police officers throughout the country. In Soweto itself, police have historically been "targeted" as the enemy of the people. According to Servamus November 1994, during the period 1 January to 31 August 1994, a total number of eight hundred and seventy two attacks occurred on members of the South African Police. The Crime Information Analysis Centre (CIAC) calculated that there were one thousand four hundred and seventy four attacks on SAP members during 1994. The majority of these attacks took place in Gauteng followed by Natal Kwazulu in the same period. The fewest attacks occurred in the Free State and Northern Transvaal.

According to CAICI one hundred and seventy three members were murdered; one hundred and fourteen of these were killed while off duty. A total of two hundred and fifty five members of South African Police were murdered in 1994, according to Lt-Col Buys. Again, Gauteng has the highest incidence followed by Natal/Kwazulu. While it was reported in the Star (07/07/95) that there has been a decrease in murders of members of the police service, these attacks continue to prevail. This makes the work of police officers both thankless and extremely dangerous.

It seems that it will take a very long time before police in our country are seen to be serving the community as opposed to fighting the community. Both the police and communities need to make a concerted effort to develop good working relationships and to develop trust on both sides. The lack of positive reinforcement received by police makes police officers despondent and contributes to their lack of willingness to deal with community issues that are not deemed to be "serious". Many police officers who live in townships have in fact been isolated and alienated by their neighbours. This makes the need for community policing even more urgent if police are to be effective law enforcers and protectors.

Collective Bargaining

Until very recently, all decisions made in the South African Police Force/Service were done unilaterally by management. Police officers, particularly those below the rank of Major, had little influence over decision making processes. All police grievances were dealt with individually through a ranking process, but the collective voice of the police was not heard. It September 1989, Popcru was formed and was the first real police union in South Africa. Popcru essentially voiced the grievances of many police and prison officers who felt they no longer wanted to be part of an illegitimate police service. Popcru was also concerned with the working conditions of police and prison workers. When Popcru was formed, it was immediately attacked by police management. Four hundred Popcru members were suspended and 54 police officers were dismissed in 1990 following the formation of Popcru. Individual police who were members of Popcru were victimised at a station level.

As you are aware, Popcru while important in terms of showing South Africans that there were "good" policemen, was unable to represent all police workers. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Popcru was seen to be closely associated at the time with the United Democratic Front and later with the African National Congress. Secondly, police officers were concerned that if they were to join Popcru, they too would be victimised.

In 1993, another police union, the South African Police Union (SAPU) was formed. While many have stated that SAPU was formed to counter POPCRU and was labelled a "management union", it currently represents about 42 000 members of the South African Police Service, both black and white. In the past, these two unions have had a antagonistic relationship with one another. This has led to conflict at all levels between members of SAPU and members of POPCRU.

A lot of tension has been created particularly at the local level as a result of the conflict between the two unions. In many instances, police officers have joined both unions so as not to be victimised, or to ensure that at some point their grievances are adequately addressed by a collective body. The recent go-slow in Soweto was portrayed as spearheaded by SAPU. POPCRU decided not to support the action of the go-slow. Many police officers identified with the demands been made at the time, but the question of membership of one of the two unions again caused tension and confusion.

It would be in the interest of all police workers if the two unions began to work together on issues of collective bargaining. At a local level, this is of particular importance since it is at this level that the most antagonistic interactions take place. At a national level, however, some leadership of the two unions have realised that a proper working relationship needs to be developed between the two unions; there is even talk of a merger process. However, neither union will go ahead with a merger process without the support of its membership.

It should be kept in mind that a united front is far stronger than one which is divided. Management is also confused as to which union they should pay attention to and give recognition. At the local level, police officers should be setting an example as to how police workers could unite. Conflict between the two unions has given rise to unnecessary stress experienced by police workers.

The question of labour relations in the police service is still under debate and in the process of being finalised. At present the police unions have only been given observer status at the Public Sector Labour Relations Council. This has to be changed so that the voice of police workers is also noted by the Public Service Commission. While the two unions, together with the Police Staff Association (PSA) participate in the national negotiations forum in the police service, issues of wages and salaries cannot be negotiated. Like all other workers, your right to express your demands around working conditions should be asserted. At a local level you should be feeding into discussions such as whether you police should be included in the new Labour Relations Bill; what is meant by "essential services"; whether police should have the right to strike; and if police should have a separate bargaining chamber within the public service.

Mechanisms of Dealing with Stress in the SAPS

It is clear that police confront a number of very serious areas of stress in their daily lives, both at work and at home. Police need to develop mechanisms of dealing with stress. The sad reality is that the very nature of police work is stressful and that this stress needs to be managed.

It is crucial that when members of the South African Police Service feel stressed or have experienced trauma, that they are able to speak to others about this. Police officers are only likely to share these feelings with people that you feel comfortable with, and trust. While there are social workers in the police service, they are often over-loaded since there are so few of them. You may also feel that social workers do not understand your problems since they are for the most part, civilians.

However, social workers are there to listen to the problems presented to them by members of the SAPS, and assist you with ways of dealing with stress and trauma. When police feel misunderstood by the social workers provided, they should express this to the people concerned. Secondly, in the police service, going for counselling is seen as a weakness and has historically been regarded as a public issue, and not one of confidentiality. Police workers need to ensure that social workers are correctly utilised according to your needs. A culture needs to be created within the police service which states that seeking help and advice is in fact a sign of strength rather than weakness.

Social workers, however, are not the only people who can assist with stress management. As police workers, self-help groups should be formed at local or area level, where members of the SAPS are able to discuss events and problems. These groups should have the freedom to choose whether or not their is a desire or necessity to have social worker or any other professional to facilitate such a grouping. Simply talking about your problems and experiences is a huge release. Talking, while it may not solve the problem, often helps in gaining clarity as to what the problems is and what can be done about it. Furthermore, by discussing problems as a police officer with other colleagues, it will become apparent that many individual problems are shared by others in the service, and that individual police officers are not alone in their experiences of pain and anxiety. As police, colleagues should be providing the very necessary support required in an immensely stressful job.

Finally, spouses and family of police officers are often at the receiving end of the stress and tension of police work. They are ultimately the ones police go home to, and who are expected to understand problems and lend support to police workers. Police officers need to ensure that they are able to appropriately discuss problems with their families and close ones so that they too know how to help you deal with your daily stresses.

It may even be necessary for police officers to sit down with close ones and discuss why they feel unable to talk about certain issues which are believed to be confidential, and should remain within the police service. The people close to police officers should not feel that they are inadequate in helping with problems. In fact, the work of police officers which is often dangerous, and results in spending little time at home; this in itself may present itself as a stress for the family and partners of police officers; police officers may want to think about setting up a group for the partners and families of police officers in your area. This could be beneficial to both police officers and their partners who could be part of a shared experience.

In conclusion, each and every member of the SAPS are undoubtable undergoing enormous stress currently. Many may even be experiencing post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of being part of, or witnessing a traumatic act such as a murder, rape, or brutal assault. Police deserve the space to talk about and deal with your very real and legitimate feelings of depression, anger, distress, and pain. The South African Police Service as a whole needs to become more sensitised to the very urgent and consistent psychological needs of police workers in a country such as our own where police have to work with one of the highest levels of violent crime in the world while receiving almost no positive regard from the communities they attempting to service, and often very little from police management itself.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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