The Police-Community Relationship

The Police-Community Relationship

Marais, E. (1993). The Police-Community Relationship. In Glanz, L. (ed), Managing Crime in the New South Africa: Selected readings. Pretoria: HSRC Publishers. Proceedings of the Human Sciences Research Council conference, Managing Crime in the New South Africa: A practical and affordable approach, Pretoria, 4-6 August 1992.


Etienne Marais

In Glanz, L. (ed.), Managing Crime in the New South Africa: Selected Readings, pp. 113-136, Pretoria: HSRC Publishers. Proceedings of the Human Sciences Research Council conference: Managing Crime in the New South Africa: A practical and affordable approach, Pretoria, 4-6 August 1992.

Etienne Marais is a former Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


Police-community relations have been thrust into the spotlight by the "Waddington Inquiry" into the investigation of the Boipatong massacre.1 Dr Waddington's report is however, confirmation of the view of a number of writers on policing that the problems experienced in the field of police-community relations in South Africa are primarily the result of the legacy of apartheid.2

The weakness of police-community relations in many parts of the country are today perhaps the greatest obstacle to effective policing. An improvement in the relationships between the police and the communities they are tasked with serving, is a vital step towards the achievement of greater levels of affordable personal safety.

This paper is based on three starting points.

  • Political factors have played a vital role in the way in which police-community relations have developed. Because the police are the most visible and powerful arm of the state, the nature of the state and the way it is perceived has a profound impact on police-community relations – and vice versa.

  • The way in which the role of the police and the relationship between police and society are understood, by both police and society themselves, has a vital bearing on their expectations, and hence on the relationship itself. Recommendations for the improvement of police-community relations must therefore be based on a full analysis of the way in which the police-society relationship is understood. This includes views on police accountability and the role of the police themselves.

  • The developments in policing internationally can provide us with important lessons for the improvement in police-community relations. Although other countries have different social dynamics, there are similarities in both the traditions of policing and the forms of social problems encountered worldwide. The area of police-community relations (and more recently community policing) has been of major concern in Europe and America for over two decades.

There is little doubt that the relationship between police agencies and significant sectors of South Africa's population is characterised by mistrust and even hostility.3 And yet the political factors which have an effect on police-community relations in South Africa have received little attention within the discipline of police science.

While I have said that police-community relations are affected by national political dynamics, the relationship between policing and politics is a dynamic one. Indeed the proactive development of positive police-community relations and greater levels of personal security is a potentially important factor in the development of more co-operative political relations in South Africa. Improved police-community relations will not only lead to greater levels of personal security, but have a significant role to play in the resolution of community conflicts and the development of more harmonious relations between various groups in South Africa.

The Role of Police-Community Relationships in the Achievement of Affordable Personal Safety

The relationship between the police and the public determines to a significant degree just how effective policing will be in the protection of social order.

There are several levels at which this can be examined. The first and most fundamental is based on the role and nature of policing itself.

The Nature of Policing

The police do not exist in isolation and cannot operate on their own. Police in a democratic society are delegated their authority by the state on behalf of the people and are, in the final analysis, supposed to be accountable to the people they serve.

There are two key features of policing which arise from the definition of the role of the police.

  • The coercive power of the police. The police are the only agency in society which is granted the legal authority to use force (violence) in the exercise of their duties. At the same time the police are able to deprive individuals of the very rights and freedoms which democratic societies regard as so important.

  • While the law provides the basis upon which police operate, this and the various police regulations do not in general determine precisely what police should do.4 This means that policing is essentially a discretionary activity.5

The enormous powers of the police combined with the discretionary nature of policing, mean that actions of the police are easily seen as threatening and unjustified,6 when people do not perceive them to be fair and in the interests of the community.

This difficult nature of policing means that one of the "most important regulating factors is that the police must secure public approval for their actions" (Pike 1986:23).

Preconditions for Effective Policing

The second level of concern for sound police-community relations relates to the importance of the "partnership in policing". According to Van Heerden there is "a tacit partnership in policing", because … the "very basis of orderliness is the internalised inclination of every citizen to obey the law" (Van Heerden 1986:131). In terms of the approach of Police Science to this issue, the police are the active partner, with an obligation to "… convert the passivity of the passive partner into a full and active partnership" (Van Heerden 1986: 132). This approach includes some emphasis on the "socialising aspect of police work" which includes the promotion of voluntary compliance with the law and voluntary assistance to the police.

If one examines the actual nature of policing it becomes clear that there are a number of practical ways in which the "partnership in policing" is enormously important in the prevention of crime.

The first is the nature of crime prevention itself, which is regarded as the primary function of the police.7 Crime prevention is a broad term which includes public education and awareness of steps to be taken in the prevention of crime; the creation of a "deterrent effect" through random patrol or the ability to respond rapidly to calls for help; and minimising of opportunities to commit crime. Obviously since the police can only facilitate most of the components of crime prevention its effectiveness depends of the degree to which members of the public:

  • Take responsibility, both individually and collectively for their own protection
  • Are aware of the need to minimise opportunities for crime
  • Are willing to co-operate with the police and make available information regarding potential or actual crime problems, even when these problems do not affect them directly

The primary deterrent to potential criminals is not the law or that the police alone will take action against the criminal, but that the community collectively will disapprove to such an extent that the victim, or other witnesses will take action by bringing in the police and if need be, assisting with the investigation by telling the police what they know.

Crime cannot be prevented by the police if the community does not have confidence in the police to do so, or if for some other reasons crime is not reported. Research has suggested that a great deal of crime is not in fact reported to the police – this is obviously also dependent on the quality of the relationship between police and community.

The second area concerns the reactive element of policing, namely the arrest and investigation of crimes with a view to the prosecution of the offender. Although the police are delegated large powers of investigation and arrest they are very few in number relative to the community. The vast majority of breaches of the law occur outside of the awareness of the police and must be reported to the police before they can be acted on.

The process of investigating crimes does not, contrary to the mythology surrounding detective work, generally succeed through the brilliance of detectives, but is to a large extent dependent on the willingness of the public to assist with information and to act as witnesses when the case comes to court.

Public Input into Policing Strategy

The need for the public to assist the police as described above is however only one leg of the relationship. Less often recognised (and certainly less developed) is the way in which the specific concerns and understanding of the community can impact on and improve the management of policing.

The allocation of resources and the selection of priorities is one of the key problems in police management. Under present circumstances the police force are certainly over-extended and choices must be made as to where and how to focus the available resources. It follows from the principle of police accountability that this should be done on the basis of community concerns and community perceptions.

Choosing priorities that relate to the real fears of the community is important in building public confidence in the police, particularly if the community is aware of such choices and the reason for them. This in turn contributes to the various areas of co-operation identified above. The approach whereby the police decide on their own where their resources should be prioritised often reinforces perceptions that the police are wasting their time on "trivial issues".

Where communities are culturally, socially and economically diverse, input into policing priorities is even more important. It also has implications for the organisation of policing which shall be examined in more detail further on.

Approaches to Policing and the Community

Whisenand and Ferguson (1986:261) identify three different approaches to interaction which are initiated in an organised way by police agencies:

  • Public relations is aimed primarily at informing the public and tends to be one-way communication. Public relations is often concerned with the "police image".
  • Police-community relations is aimed at establishing a dialogue with the police.
  • Community policing is a broad term which involves proactive programmes designed to integrate police-community relations with actual police work.

The different emphases in these different approaches to police-community interaction are reflective of different perceptions of the proper role of the police in the maintenance of social order, and of the relationship between police and specific and varied communities in society.

In order to understand the basis for the different approaches we need to briefly explore the conceptual foundations of different approaches to the police-society relationship and social order.

Defining the Problem

The traditional ideal that the police are the public and the public are the police is widely regarded as the underlying principle of modern policing (Van Heerden 1986:22; Pike 1985:1). Pike argues that the modern system of policing which originated with the creation of the London Metropolitan Police had as one of its central ideas the notion of "consensus".

… much depends on the approval and co-operation of the public, and these have always been determined by the degree of the esteem and respect in which the police are held. Therefore, every member of the force must remember that it is his duty to protect and help members of the public, no less than to bring offenders to justice. Consequently, while prompt to prevent crime and arrest criminals, he must look on himself as the servant and guardian of the general public and treat all law-abiding citizens, irrespective of their race, colour or social position, with unfailing patience and courtesy.8

The concern for public confidence in, and acceptability of the police with the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police arose out of a widely-held concern that the notion of a powerful and centrally organised police agency was at odds with the ideals of individual freedom and exemption of interference that was supposedly the basis of a democratic society (Pike 1985:3-13).

Indeed the nature and powers of modern police agencies may well be considered an anomaly with the ethos of democracy. Smit & Botha (1990) ask whether policing within a democracy is not in fact a "paradox". The central point of their argument is that the police are vested with a great deal of authority and the power to deprive ordinary citizens of their freedoms within a democratic system where these very freedoms are regarded as the basic pillars of society. Police actions invariably result in the deprivation of the rights of the suspect. The degree to which particular actions on the part of the police are acceptable depends on the communities' own values and norms. If the police operate outside of the bounds of this "community acceptability" this invariably leads to alienation and even hostility towards the police.

This has most often been the case in relation to so-called "minority" or "oppressed" communities. This is because the dominant groups in society have a different view of what is "acceptable practice" in relation to policing within a particular community to that of the policed community itself.

The dynamic and difficult tension between the principles and freedoms embodied in democracy and the nature of policing is perhaps most stark in relation to the authority of the police to use force. The police are the only agency in society which has the legal right to use force and coercion in the performance of their duties at their own discretion. While the judiciary may impose restrictions on the rights and freedoms of individuals – such as sentences for criminal acts – it is obliged to do this within the context of the due process of law, which allows the accused the opportunity to challenge and cast doubt on the state's version of what actually happened. The police, however, can go so far as to deprive the individual of life, without the benefit of a rigorous legal procedure. It is ultimately the discretion of the individual police officer which determines whether the freedoms and rights of the individual are transgressed. Where there is discrimination in policing (such as in South Africa), such freedoms are routinely transgressed within specific communities, without there necessarily being specific evidence that the individuals who suffer have committed an offence.

The nature of policing is fundamentally antagonistic to those it affects. The enormous power of the police to deprive citizens of their rights and the discretionary nature of police action means that the police tend to be alienated from the community, except where such actions of the police are seen to be of direct benefit to a specific community.

There are two possible responses to this problem. The first is what I shall call the "ideal of consensus", which is based on the implicit assumption that modern policing is conducted on the basis of consensus about the nature of the social order as well as on the way in which the society is policed. The view of the policing role which is based on a societal consensus about law and order is perhaps the dominant view of policing in the western world. It needs to be understood because of its importance in informing the way that police-community relations are viewed in the South African context.

This vision has however been challenged by a number of writers, and is in the process of being reformulated in the light of the trend towards community policing in many parts of the world.

The alternative and emergent view places a lot of emphasis on the diversity of societies and the fact that different communities do not in fact have the same ideals with regard to social order, nor are they generally concerned about the same problems. It also recognises that historically, the police have reflected and protected the values and interests of the dominant interest groups in society.

The Ideal of Consensus

The dominant philosophy of policing argues that it is the notion of "policing by consent" which allows the tension between democracy and policing to be accommodated. According to this view the police are delegated authority and power from the state on the basis of a broad consensus about the nature of the social order to be policed. The democratic process of parliamentary democracy allows citizens to express themselves on the values and norms to be protected. The fact that the police are delegated authority by society means that they are accountable to society for the use of those powers. It is thus the delegation of authority from the citizenry which underlies the police-community relationship.

Transgressions of the individual's freedom can thus only be justified within the context of public support for the methods and practice of policing. Such support is usually held to be dependent on principles such as "proportionality" – whereby the degree of force or severity of punishment is proportional to the seriousness of the alleged offence.

However, this approach views the main channel of police accountability as the state, and to the law which is generally assumed to be fair and unproblematic.9 This approach also places strong emphasis on the "independence" and "professionalism" of the police.

Neither politicians nor pressure groups nor anyone else may tell the police what decisions to take or what methods to employ, whether to enforce the law or not in a particular case, or how to investigate a particular offence. The exercise of police judgement has to be as independent as the exercise of professional judgement by a doctor or a lawyer. If it is not, the way is open to manipulation and abuse of the law whether for political or for private ends …10

The major problem with this view is that "independence" tends to be assumed to lead to impartiality. In fact independence of the police does not mean that the police are not tied to political interests. This is particularly clear in the South African context where the police are supposed to be operationally independent, but as it has also been argued in the British context: the "impartial history" of the British police is in fact a myth.11 Jefferson (1990) argues for example that impartiality and the process of exercising discretion combined with the shortage of resources, mean that the police, at both management and street level are forced to make decisions about where they should place their energies which are of necessity subjective and hence "partial".

What must be recognised is that value systems which determine to a large extent the way in which the police make decisions are closely tied to those of the social group to which the police officer belongs.

The influence of the "consensus view" of policing on thinking about police-community relations can also be seen in a number of related concepts and the way they are used in the conventional discourse of police-community relations. The concern with a police image tends to imply that there is an homogeneity in the experience of policing (and the social order) throughout society. The notion of the police as operationally independent strengthens the idea, which runs through the policing tradition, that the police are the experts in the field of crime and that their work is beyond the legitimate reach of public influence. The tacit assumption or effect of this philosophy of policing is that the police actively pursue a relationship with the public on their own terms. The unquestioned doctrine of police practice based on impartiality and minimum force is presented to the public as the logical outcome of democratic government and law and order. As Van Heerden (1986) puts it:

The favour and approval of the public must be sought at all times, not by pandering to public opinion, but by enforcing the laws with constant and absolute impartiality, giving prompt, individual and friendly service to all members of society regardless of status, social position or national affiliation, being courteous and friendly at all times and being ready to make personal sacrifices in order to save lives.12

A further important feature of this notion of police-community relations is that "the law" (and thus social order) is seen as something external to the community. In American policing the concerns with corruption in the 1960s lead to a trend where the police "relate impersonally with communities" and that the source of police authority was to be found in "criminal law and police professionalism rather than in the political will of the community" (Kelling 1986:12).

A central feature of the "consensus" notion of policing is that accountability is primarily to "the law". In addition the "independence" of the police helps to ensure that they are indeed impartial in the way that they relate to the public – and in the process of investigating a crime. This emphasis on independence from political or other undue influence can be related to the emphasis on professional expertise. This however means that the police regard themselves as having the exclusive right to determine the nature of policing. The values and laws of central government (the state) are also regarded as having a higher moral standing than the views and customs of specific communities.

Beyond Consensus – The "problem" of Community Diversity

The alternative view of policing is based on the realisation of the diversity of communities and hence of social order. This view has been articulated by a number of writers on policing, as well as in the reflections of "community" policing practitioners in cities around the world.

The starting point is that society is made up of diverse communities with contrasting and often conflicting interest groups. This makes the nature of the relationship between police and society much more complex.

The notion of consensus and historical impartiality in the development of policing is according to Jefferson (1990:47) idealistic and historically incorrect. Police forces, far from being "inherently impartial" generally reflect the dominant interest groups within society (Jefferson 1990:47). Writers such as Reiner (1985) and in the South African context Steytler (1990), Brogden (1991) and Rauch (1991) draw attention to the role of police culture in determining the nature of policing.

The centralised and exclusive nature of police accountability both within national police forces and so-called "decentralised" police forces, as well as the important influence of police culture means that the police forces have historically reflected the dominant interests within society. This analysis is borne out by the "crisis of policing" in much of the western world over the last two decades. In reality one of the main reasons for this crisis is the way in which police forces have reflected and acted in the interests of the dominant groups in society – to the detriment of their relations with and credibility among, so-called "minority" and special interest groups.

This emergent new tradition in policing (which I consider to be a more realistic approach to the problem of policing within a diverse democracy) is based on a concern for the following areas: Incidentally, some of these concerns seem to be reflected in the concerns surrounding the development of community policing in places like New York City (Ref. New York Strategy document).

  • A history of the police which recognises the partisan origins and the role of the police in protecting certain power relations.

  • The consensus at a parliamentary level which leads to law-making is the product of the dominance of certain interest groups and the law tends to reflect these dominant interests. There is therefore a recognition that the law may be perceived to be at odds with community norms.

  • Assumption that the police act in terms of who they are – emphasis on police culture as determinant of policing styles, methods and the focus for favourable or discriminatory policing. The notion of the independence of the police forces does not necessarily imply that the police are impartial. There is thus an active concern for the representative nature of policing. The police must be representative of the community and its values. There is also a concern for the values of the police.

  • Impartiality is relative to the different values and norms within which policing operates. What is impartial in one community will be perceived to be discriminatory in another. The police have to be attuned to the specific values of the community.

  • Police accountability should include a degree of accountability to the particular community being policed.

The Nature of Communities

The question of "community" is of great importance here. The term community is often used in the South African context to describe the general population, or racially separate sectors of the citizenry.

But what does "community" actually mean? There are several senses in which the word is used. Wilmot (1987) offers three: namely the territorial entity defined by geographical boundaries; the specific interest community defined by common interests and thirdly, communities as defined by a sense of belonging to relationships or places.13 In the South African context "community" has increasingly come to refer to the "black" community. Indeed the racial divides in terms of residence patterns present a stark dichotomy in the lifestyles and perceptions of policing in the different South African communities. However, even specific geographical "communities" are divided into a range of sub-communities with differing interests, values and needs. These groups differ in the degree of power which they exercise in the community – some being more marginal or "repressed" than others. For the purposes of this discussion I will use community to refer to the smallest group with identifiable common interests. Thus a larger "community" may be made up of other "communities": Women, men, youth, the unemployed, particular political allegiances, etc. which may or may not intersect. Women and men are part of the same community, but in terms of the social order have different interests and are treated in different ways by the police.

In reality the status quo as far as the social order in a "community" is concerned is usually defined at any particular point by an equilibrium in the power relations between different sub-communities which make it up. Such power relations are generally dynamic and change leads to a realignment of power between different sub-communities. An industrial area is a community in a geographical sense, but it may be made up of a "migrant labour community", and a "migrant managerial community" who have a semi-stable relationship which is defined as a "social order". When the relationship changes (a labour dispute for instance), the police may believe that the dispute constitutes a threat to the social order. They may be called on by one sector of the community (the managerial sector) to protect their interests by arresting "illegal strikers". The police will probably say that they acted impartially. The law might very well agree. But what for the "migrant labour community" is "impartial" police action? Surely impartial action would be to facilitate the resolution of the dispute (social conflict) to the satisfaction of all.

This example highlights an important feature of communities, namely that impartiality in the context of conflict and differences within communities can only be measured relative to these conflicts. Impartiality is not something that can be abstracted from concrete situations.

Communities in conflict

The "relative" nature of impartiality is particularly relevant in the light of deep divisions which plague many South African communities. Community conflicts pose particular problems for efforts by the police to establish sound police-community relations.

There is no doubt that the "violence" severely hampers the potential to establish good relations with the community. The police see themselves as being caught in the middle – as a "barrier" between two sides.14 Intervening always involves stopping one side or the other from doing what they are doing. If a side is "winning" then it will see the police as siding with the other side. The police see themselves as in a no-win situation – some arguing that it is the parties which need to take the initiative to change the situation.15 In these communities it appears that the logical form for police-community liaison would comprise of "multi-party" representatives. Indeed the structures of the National Peace Accord have, where they are functional, become one of the most important forums for police-community relations.

In Natal and war-torn areas in the Vaal, communities tend to be categorised as either IFP areas or ANC areas. In fact, all these areas have a dominance of one party and a silent acquiescence of those who would rather support the other, or neither party. The effect of labelling an area as legitimately "IFP" or "ANC" means that the police only relate to the structures of the dominant group. While this is often seen as an acceptable channel for police-community interaction, it may in fact simply serve to encourage the political dominance and "intolerance" of the one side.

A relatively recent development (in Natal) is the appearance of communities (often refugee communities) who do not want to be identified with either side. This highlights the fact that basing police-community relations on political structures may in certain communities have the effect of sidelining significant sectors – to the detriment of all concerned.

In the context of the practice of police-community relations, the different perspectives of communities seem to be particularly important. Community leaders who serve on liaison forums may formally represent a community, but they do not necessarily represent the views of all important sectors within the community.

The relative importance of such factors depends on the approach to police-community relations which the police base their actions on. A police force which focuses primarily on "image" and "public relations" is unlikely to be aware enough of the dynamics which I am highlighting, to avoid exacerbating them in their interaction with the community.

The Crisis in Policing – A Crisis of Relationships?

Towards an Analysis of Police-Community Relations in South Africa

The crisis of law and order which we are experiencing is mirrored by what many authors have referred to as "The crisis in policing" in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The "crisis" of policing elsewhere is essentially about the failure of relationships, particularly with people who are different, culturally and socially to the dominant group or class in society. The crisis is also about the development of policing in a technocratic and paramilitary direction which served to isolate the police from the community, and lead to a reliance on the patrol-car and the computer rather than on face on face contact with the people.16 Policing thus became alienated from the people it aimed to serve.

More significantly the different communities (as described above) became more vocal and their concerns and claims of police discrimination came into the public eye, as they gained assertiveness. In many countries this was associated with rapid changes in the demographic make-up of urban communities and the development of greater concern with civil rights, particularly among previously disempowered groups. Democracy also created the expectation among minority groups that society should offer them the same freedoms and rights as those enjoyed by the dominant groups. In essence the police had not seen the need to pay special attention to these groups and as a result relations worsened.

In Britain the Scarman Report highlighted the loss of confidence in the police by certain sections of the community, and particularly the hostility directed towards the police by many young blacks. It was also noted that the police, by virtue of their specialist skills and their own codes of behaviour, were risking becoming "set apart from the rest of the community".17

In the South African context there are a number of factors which must be considered in an analysis of police-community relations.

Police Science emphasises the importance of various social-psychological processes such as perception, attitudes and stereotyping.

Basically the police-community relationship is a form of inter-group relations, as both police and community regard each other as identifiable groups with specific characteristics. Attitudes and perceptions from both police and community tend to be collectively influenced, and experiences of the other group lead to stereotypes being formed. Stereotypes are a set of generalisations about out-groups which enable the individual to categorise people into this or that group.

As is the case with inter-group relations more generally, attitudes tend to be modified in such a way that the "social identity" of the in-group remains favourable relative to the out-group (Ref Tajfel). Stereotypes of "other groups" tend to be more negative than the set of generalisations about the in-group. As with all inter-group relations the most positive effects on negative stereotypes arise from positive experiences of the out-group.

The effects of inter-group dynamics can also be minimised if both groups perceive themselves to have something in common, as opposed to the features of a third group (the criminal element).

The social-psychological approach to police-community relations does suggest a number of points about the way in which the two groups (police and community) should relate to each other. These are mentioned in the concluding section of the paper.

While these are obviously important they can only be meaningfully understood within the historical development of the police and the kinds of factors which influence the formation of attitudes and stereotypes.

The starting point is the historical development of policing in South Africa and its differential relationship with different communities.

Historical Background

Police-community relations have historically developed within the discriminatory context of apartheid and colonial conquest. The early development of policing was military in nature and placed the early "police forces" in an antagonistic relationship with indigenous peoples, whom the early settlers had conquered. There has thus been a fundamental difference in the relationship the formal police agencies have with the white community and that with other groups. This difference exists to the present day, albeit in different forms.

In our recent past, the role of the police in maintaining apartheid had a profound impact in shaping police-community relations. "Apartheid policing" was exercised in two distinct ways: Firstly through the enforcement of the regulations governing many aspects of people's lives. This included the pass laws, influx controls, the Group Areas Act, liquor laws, etc. The second area, namely that of political policing, arose out of South Africa's very extensive security legislation and involved the monitoring of the political and social activities of a large number of groups and individuals. The basic aim of such repressive policing was the control and regulation of police activity. In effect what we have seen in the South African context is the "criminalisation" of a wide variety of political activity.

The discourse of the "total onslaught" – the political battle between conflicting ideologies on a world scale – explained the conflict between the political status quo and "black" groups as part of an international ideological battle between the west and the communist bloc.18 The police and the thinkers who serviced the SAP thus interpreted black opposition as something sinister and threatening to the social order, something which had to be repressed and dealt with at all costs. This "total onslaught" world-view contributed in no small way to the ongoing militarisation of the policing function, and to the antagonistic form which police-community relations took in the nineteen-eighties.

This had a profound effect on police-community relations. It meant that for the majority of South Africans the police were not seen to be primarily serving the communities' needs in terms of the protection of a social order in a positive sense, but were rather regarded as repressing the aspirations of communities who wanted a greater say in the political process and for whom the law itself was discriminatory and imposed by a state power in which they had never participated.19

The process of political change has created the opportunity for a more positive relationship between black communities and the police (Erasmus 1991). However, for a number of reasons this does not appear to have happened to the extent one might have expected (Rauch 1991; Marais 1991). The explanation is to be found in the nature of police accountability, continued political polarisation (in which the police have been one of the more controversial issues), and the nature of the police force itself. Also important is the way in which the police organisation and members see police-community relations, particularly at local level.

The Character of South African Policing and Police Accountability

The fact that the South African police force has a paramilitary character is widely accepted.20 This is closely related to the centralised nature of policing in South Africa. Despite increased regionalisation of the policing function since 1989, there is little real or operational autonomy at a regional or local level. This is borne out by the fact that the commanding officers of ten police regions are junior in rank to the chiefs of the five specialised police divisions.

Although police-community relations and the "partnership in policing" is constantly emphasised by the South African Police, the paramilitary character of policing, as well as the highly centralised and "exclusive" form of police accountability makes real relationships at a local level hard to realise.

The SAP sees the police-community relationship as important, and has in the last year made significant efforts to improve such relations. However, police-community relations are understood within a specific view of the authority of the police. The police are the "dominant partner" in the police-community relationship and the community is not seen to have the right (or indeed the capability) to co-determine the nature of policing practice. An example of the effects of this in practice is that local level "forums" established as part of a police-community relations programme have been hampered by insistence on the part of the police that the meetings are chaired by the police. In addition, the style of policing has been predominantly reactive in the past, and although there is a trend towards pro-active policing,21 crime prevention remains under-developed.22

In the past it has been assumed that racial discrimination in policing was an inevitable result of apartheid. In the era of the "new South Africa" it seems that it has become unfashionable to even talk about racial discrimination. It seems that everybody would like to believe that racial discrimination has disappeared. However, there are indications that the police force still thinks very much in racial terms. The experience of police forces elsewhere would suggest that racial discrimination is a serious problem in policing and should be confronted head-on (Brown 1991). My own research in the "homeland" police forces, suggests that racism is still rife in the SAP.23

Police Accountability

Obviously the nature of politics has a profound impact on police-community relations. Under the consensus model the police are accountable to society as a whole, and to a view of social order which is based on consensus. However, even the very basic requirement of democratic participation is absent in South Africa. The nature of accountability determines whether people view the police as "their police force" and thus has a profound impact on community perceptions and thus on police-community relations.

The SAP is formally accountable, through the Minister of Law and Order, to the (white) House of Assembly. The exclusion of the majority of South Africans from the structures of government means that most people have no access to the police through elected or representative structures.

For many years, the lack of direct police accountability has been exacerbated by the existence of the National Security Management System (NSMS) which, to some extent, dictated police strategy in forums which were secretive, not accountable to the public or, at times, even to Parliament. This has meant that the police do not have a tradition of public accountability.24 The influence of the NSMS and the effect of the dominant threat analysis which resulted in the notion of the "total onslaught" have in addition resulted in a culture of secrecy. Decision-making processes which elsewhere would be regarded as issues of public concern are often carried out in secret, and even bona fide interest groups are not able to get access to documentation.25

In South Africa too, the notion of police "independence and professionalism" as a source of police authority has been tacitly related to the consensus notion of social order (see para.3.1), although South Africa has clearly never been a democratic society. The fact that control of the police force remains in the hands of the National Party (despite the establishment of the Police Board)26 demonstrates the invalidity in our context of the "consensus" model.

It is common cause that one of the major controversies surrounding the SAP in the 1990s is the question of whether the police have broken with the notion of the black community and the ANC in particular as "the enemy", and whether members or units of the police force have indeed been involved in the violence as participants.

The difference between the quasi-military and the civil policeman is that the civil policeman should have no enemies. People may be criminals, they may be violent, but they are not enemies to be destroyed. Once that kind of language gets into the police vocabulary, it begins to change attitudes.27

The ANC (and other major political groups) has argued the view that the SAP has not accepted the "new South Africa" and that there remains a strategy of using violence to weaken the structures of the ANC in order to prevent the ANC from coming to power.

At the same time, allegations of abuses of power such as those made by Doctor Gluckman,28 criminal lawyers and others,29 suggest that particularly in relation to black people, there exists within the police practices and attitudes which are the very opposite of the notion of "policing by consent". Dr Waddington's assertion that the SAP seems to have an approach to investigation based on the extraction of confessions, if true, is an indication of the way that the past will continue to haunt police-community relations.

However, whether specific allegations are true or not, is not the issue. The fact remains that it is the perception of a very large number of people that they may be true. In social-psychological terms this amounts to a form of "inter-group conflict" and has a profound influence on police-community relations and further exacerbates the cycle of non-co-operation with the police and ineffective investigations, particularly in the arena of political violence.30

Internationally it has been recognised that the abuse of power can have the most devastating and lasting effect on the way the police are perceived. Therefore the credibility of the investigations into such occurrences is of utmost importance.

The following features of police accountability and practice remain obstacles to any meaningful attempts to address the perception that the police are involved in the violence, and hence to deal with the suspicion, hostility and lack of trust which appear to be prevalent in many communities.

  • Doubts about the role of the old "security branch". The fact that parties other than the National Party have not yet had access to the management of the police, allows community suspicion about the true role of the Crime Intelligence Service to linger.

  • The absence of an independent complaints investigation mechanism to handle allegations against the police. Although a success, the Trust Feeds case highlighted the problem of the police investigating actions of their own members without independent scrutiny (see judgement of Trust Feeds).

  • Unrepresentative nature of police leadership. The fact that the most senior officer in the police force who was not white is a Brigadier31 is indicative of the unrepresentative nature of police leadership. This may make it difficult for other groups to see the police force as "our police force", and hence serves as a barrier to improved police-community relations.

  • The absence of visible steps or assessment to deal with the issue of discriminatory policing. The assumption that discriminatory policing is only the result of "rotten apples" is not consistent with the steps which have been taken elsewhere in the world to address this problem.

Some Conclusions and Recommendations

Towards Community Policing?

Although community policing as it is practised in places like New York and Toronto is unlikely to be feasible in South Africa, there is a considerable amount to learn from the development of these models of "community policing".

They provide a set of principles and strategies for the improvement of police-community relations in South Africa.

Community policing was developed as a response to precisely the sorts of problems which we are facing in South Africa.

In summing up this large body of academic and police-based research, one can conclude that the key strategies of random patrol and rapid response have had limited effect on the wide range of social order problems that police are called on to handle.32

Many observers and practitioners have argued that the technological advances in policing combined with the emergence of plural multi-racial and participatory societies have resulted in the need for greater community sensitivity and contact on the part of the police.

According to a handbook on community policing issued by the Solicitor General in Canada, community policing is a broad term describing a range of strategies which generally integrate the concern for better police-community relations into actual police work (Solicitor General 1991:5). Some of the ingredients of community policing are the following:

  • The role of the police is broader than just crime-fighting and includes general disorder problems.
  • Problem-oriented policing strategy which will address the crime and order problems and their underlying causes.
  • An emphasis on co-operative strategies with other service delivery agencies.
  • An emphasis on the exchange of information between police and community. Police officers are thus seen as "information managers".
  • Personnel are permitted to become career generalists rather than specialists. Street constables are regarded as highly trained and are relatively well-paid professionals who have the respect of the colleagues and the local community.
  • Greater responsibility and autonomy for front line officers is facilitated by decentralised police management.
  • The hierarchical paramilitary organisational model of the police is surrendered for a flatter profile.

The concept of community policing has received ever-increasing support as the "future of policing" since at least 1982.33 Its implementation in police agencies in the USA, Canada and Europe has already produced a wealth of research and experience in its implementation.

In assessing the relevance of the community policing concept in South Africa, one needs to consider political factors, the nature of policing and the nature of communities.

Constitutional negotiations seem likely to produce a national police force, with some degree of regional decentralisation/autonomy. However, what is more important for community policing is a managerial approach which allows for a high degree of flexibility and accountability at a community level.

The other question which needs to be addressed is the ability of the community to interact meaningfully with the police. If community input into policing is to be meaningful and representative of community needs, then the communities need to be able to define and articulate their needs and then negotiate them effectively. This is thus dependent on a participative process at community level. Community policing would certainly benefit from the resolution of negotiations around local government and service provision, as well as a more participative and empowering development strategy.

Despite these difficulties it seems likely that a form of policing which is more consultative and sensitive to the different interest groups in specific communities would be more effective in contributing to solutions to the conflict, and in addressing the problem of crime. It is where solutions to the violence have been forged at a local level that they have had the most success. The breakdown of these local solutions has invariably been the result of factors and forces external to the community in question.

Other Recommendations and Conclusions

Recommendations and conclusions fall in to three parts:

At the Political Level

The need for a broader system of police accountability which is inclusive rather than exclusive is essential.

The need for political groups to address their ambiguous statements in regard to their vision of policing in a future South Africa. There is often the impression created that groups such as the ANC do not have a consistent approach to policing, with on the one hand a sense that the present police force is completely opposed. On the other hand the National Peace Accord provides recognition on the part of all parties that the police have a vital role to play.

There is also the need in the short term for the National Party to divorce its own concerns with the negotiating process from the management of policing. The impression is created that the SAP response to political events is informed by the NP's political approaches.

At the Organisational Level

This is not the only level at which police-community relations must be addressed, but unless it is addressed here, little real progress is feasible. Experiences elsewhere would suggest that fundamental organisational reform is needed. Steps taken should include the immediate opening up of the organisation to public scrutiny. Controversial questions such as clandestine operations must be more convincingly dealt with. The issue of the racial sensitivity of members of the police force should be tackled head on, preferably with the help of outside experts.

However in the interim a number of suggestions can be made. These include the establishment of a specialised unit to address police-community relations (as opposed to public relations), and the formulation of an action programme for all local units. A proven record in creative and proactive police-community relations should also receive the status it deserves by being included in the formal criteria for promotion to senior ranks.

Research and assessment around the prevalence of discrimination in policing is vital. This should be followed by a programme to address the racial attitudes of members of the police force, preferably linked to a focus on this issue by the inspectorate.

At the local level

Guidelines for the functioning of police-community "forums" are suggested. The police need to let go of their desire to completely control such forums. The issue of who is represented on them is of great importance.

All local government structures should appoint representatives to liaise on issues of social order and their solutions. Facilitators should be sought in areas where mistrust is running at a particularly high level.

Neighbourhood watch-type partnerships are very positive but these should not be imposed on a community because some of the community members are willing to participate.

Police-community relations are the essence of law enforcement in the context of democratic reforms. While all groups in society have a vital contribution to make in the improvement of police-community relations, it is ultimately the police force which is responsible for the management of the relationship. The South African Police and the other police forces in South Africa need to make a fresh start in efforts to build a partnership with the communities they serve. The diverse nature of South African communities will mean that these efforts must be adapted to suit local circumstances, and local needs.

Nothing will be achieved, however, without a process of reflection on the effects of the past. The history of policing offers important pointers to the future. They should not be ignored.


1 Dr P A J Waddington concluded in his report on the investigation in the Boipatong massacre that one of the reasons the police had failed was "a lack of awareness of the importance of sound community relations with all sections of the population which can assist in both maintaining the peace and investigating crime" (Waddington 1992:46).

2 See, for example, Scharf 1990:224, Van der Spuy 1990, Harding 1991 and Brewer et al 1988:182.

3 See for instance CCJ 1991:5, while surveys such as Van Heerden and Du Preez suggest racial disparities in the attitudes towards the police.

4 Van Heerden gives considerable attention to the issue of the law and discretion. He points out that "Discretionary administration of the law is embedded in the spirit of the law, which certainly does leave room for discretionary evaluation and judgement" (Van Heerden 1986:53).

5 Haysom 1990:140

6 Van Heerden argues that "the fact … that a policeman usually has to make such evaluations, and to act upon them, on the spur of the moment … may … create the impression that the police officer has indulged in discriminatory, rather than discretionary action" (Van Heerden 1986:53).

7 Wilson, O W, p.203 cited in Van Heerden (Van Heerden 1986:16).

8 Extract from original instructions to the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Quoted in Pike 1985:22.

9 According to Du Preez: "The law ensures a maximum degree of personal freedom and establishes boundaries to avoid infringement on the rights of others" (1992:1).

10 The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Mmnd 8427, para 4.59. Quoted in Pike 1985:156.

11 The Royal Canadian Mounted Police External Review Committee has argued the same thing in relation to the RCMP Royal Canadian Mounted Police) External Review Committee 1992:6).

12 Van Heerden 1985:78.

13 Wilmot 1987, cited in Shapland et al 1988:2.

14 Interviews with various members of the SAP in Natal, May 1991.

15 Interviews. See also statement by the Ministry on violence.

16 Kelling, G. argues that in the US police reformers like O W Wilson moved the police away from an earlier concern with community problems to "crime-fighting" only. This developed concurrently with the patrol car which isolated the police officer from the community. Kelling, 1986:12.

17 Scarman, 1989.

18 Seegers 1988:22.

19 The comments of representatives of different political constituencies are instructive here. See for example Moseneke (1991), Maduna (1991) and Lekota (1992).

20 See for instance Botha and Smit 1990:39.

21 SAP Strategic Plan 1991.

22 The emphasis given to crime prevention in basic training has increased since 1991, but coverage on this topic remains minimal. See Rauch 1992.

23 See perceptions of Lebowa police on racial discrimination.

24 Waddington, comment on lack of accountability.

25 Tiaan van der Merwe, MP and DP Spokesperson on Law and Order was refused access to basic training manuals in 1991. The SAP's "strategic plan" prior to June 1992 had only been presented to outsiders in an abridged and sanitised form.

26 The Police Board is an advisory body, set up under the National Peace Accord, which may make recommendations to the Minister of Law and Order (National Peace Accord, 1991). As such it remains peripheral to the process of police accountability, particularly because of the presence of the key leadership figures on the Police General Staff, on the Police Board.

27 John Alderson, quoted in Northam, 1985:5.

28 Sunday Times, 26 July 1992.

29 See for instance Hansson et al (1988:211) on the response of the community to the actions of 'Kitskonstabels'.

30 This failure has been reported by, among others, LRC, HRC etc. but it cannot be regarded as merely a political strategy to undermine the police as it has also been the subject of considerable anger in the context of murders of IFP leaders (Buthelezi ref.).

31 As of May 1992 there was one "Indian" brigadier, one "coloured" brigadier and one "black" brigadier in the SAP. Interview with Col. Kleynhans. There are at least 55 whites of a rank higher than Brigadier.

32 Solicitor General, Ontario, p.2.

33 Aldersen refers to the Crisis in Policing.

© 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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