The trouble with policing crowds, especially violent ones, in a democracy is that the protesters have all the rights and police have all the rules.

This is compounded by demonstrators showing a lack of appreciation for the rule of law in a democratic environment, and indeed only believing their grievances will be taken seriously if they cause a ruckus.

This is a serious problem for security forces and emergency services summoned to the scene. In assisting the injured, putting out fires or attempting to re-open public roads to restore the rights of third parties, these often come under attack, sometimes even under fire – gunfire. How should the police respond? How do we, the public, wish them to respond?

Surprisingly, for an organisation some 200 000 strong, the police have an acute shortage of public order policing (POP) personnel. Several speakers – including serving officers – noted this problem and its impact on their ability to police crowds. “POP is a numbers game,” one said. This is so. The lack of numbers translates into a number of negatives for the police on any given day: firstly, there is never enough POP personnel available to monitor, let alone police, even the significant events. Bear in mind the police say there were some 13 282 public gatherings in South Africa last year alone. This is how five officers end up at a march of 5000 … or 50 000.

The lack of numbers also make a nonsense of doctrine, command and training. It was explained to defenceWeb ‘s Public Order Policing conference that current tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) are predicated on platoons of 36. Yet such force levels are apparently never available, leaving the handful that can be mustered to improvise TTP and command relationships as best they can. This is, of course, compounded when POP troops are drawn from different units, meeting perhaps for the first time on the scene of the protest; and is made worse by cutbacks in POP training – the latter despite the increase in the number and intensity (read: violence) of protests over the same period. This is most curious.

Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa told the defenceWeb conference these and other issues are being addressed in a policy review still underway (and announced in August). Judging by the presentations made, key people in key places are aware of the problems… and what is needed to fix it seems to be funding and political will.