Are police becoming too violent when dealing with public protests?

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As the use of lethal force by police has risen in recent years and protestors become more violent, a number of experts are questioning whether the police are using excessive violence to control public demonstrations.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) has raised the issue of police violence in South Africa, especially after several unarmed people were killed earlier this year and Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the ISS, recently said that, “the SAPS does not possess adequate skills and capacity to professionally respond to a number of the challenges it faces including maintaining public order.”

In South Africa, as much as anywhere else, protests have become increasingly violent and adversarial in recent years. Whether trade unionists protesting in support of their demands on the streets of Johannesburg, or anti-globalisation demonstrators decrying the latest G20 meeting, attacks on public order forces and damage to property have become common. The Arab Spring riots and ongoing unrest in Syria and Yemen highlight the increasingly violent nature of protests, as several thousand people have been killed in those two countries, mostly by security forces.

By some accounts, the protests in the first three months of this year were the most South Africa has seen in any three-month period since 1994. Moreover, the protests seem to be more violent than in the past. “Last year’s protests, most of which occurred in July and August, led to the deaths of four people, some 94 injuries (mostly of protestors), 750 arrests, and damage to municipal buildings and police vehicles,” South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR) researcher Nthamaga Kgafela said earlier this year.

According to South Africa’s Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), which is charged with investigating all deaths resulting from police action, 568 people were shot dead by the police in 2008/09, more than double the number just three years earlier, and the highest number since the ICD was established in 1997. The number remained high during 2009/2010 with 524 people shot dead. In addition, independent Complaints Directorate figures showing that the number of police assaults rose from 1380 in 2007-2008 to 1667 in 2009-2010.

In April it was announced that South Africa’s 8500 crowd control police officers would get a refresher course in handling protests, according to national police commissioner General Bheki Cele. The decision followed several recent incidents of police brutality that were reported to police watchdog, the Independent Complaints Directorate.

The most widely publicised one was the death of protester Andries Tatane, allegedly at the hands of eight police officers, during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in the Free State on April 13, the South African Press Association reports. “Protests should be handled properly. There should be no one who gets hurt. Protesters who become violent should be arrested,” Cele said.

The officers to be sent on the course worked on crowd control during the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. “They won’t go for training all at once because there are too many.”

Since 1994 South Africa has had an erratic public order policing strategy that has led to criticism that police are too violent and that they are inadequately trained. In the 1970s, the SA Police introduced riot control units to deal with the large-scale unrest which was part of the struggle against apartheid and an entire police division was dedicated to internal stability by the early 1990s.

In 1995, a new policy was adopted which involved moving away from crowd control to crowd management and a couple of years later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that a Public Order Policing Unit be established. The unit was disbanded in 2006.

Last month the ministry of police announced a new policy that calls for the establishment of public order policing units with the South African Police Service, the better training of personnel, adequate intelligence to predict riots, the establishment of contingency plans and the reequipment of police forces. This should go a long way in adequately training and equipping police to deal with public protests and should result in a decrease in violence.

While the details of the new public order policing policy have yet to emerge, some experts have suggested many ways to keep public protests peaceful. The most important step is to communicate with the organisers of the protest, according to Brigadier ‘Happy’ Schutte, operational head of the Crime Combating Units Gauteng. Protests are by law required to be coordinated with the police, making communication with the organisers essential.

The next step is, according to a report by the University of Liverpool, to have visible police deployed on the day of the protest, but police who are in standard uniform and not on the offensive – they should be friendly and helpful and not encourage animosity. If trouble then arises, the police should only target the troublemakers, leaving peaceful protestors alone. If problems still continue and a riot breaks out, the police should then deploy against the whole crowd.

Such methods firstly dissuade violence from occurring and secondly result in police being seen as more legitimate and friendly, since they are only removing troublesome protestors. The crowd also polices itself by removing unruly elements so the police do not end up clamping down on the whole protest. This strategy has successfully been used in England and was successful in preventing riots.

It is a constitutional right for people to protest and experts say there will always be protests in South Africa, thus the need for the right approach to deal with protests. Colonel (retd) David Peddle said that, “the broad policy of a government, particularly in South Africa with regards to civil marches, is critical. That strategy, if you like, is designed in order to allow for democratic protest to take place…the normal democratic citizens’ right to protest against something which affects him directly cannot be gainsaid by the government. If a number of individuals band together to demonstrate something from abortion to pay they have the constitutional right to do so. The policy that the government and police must follow is to regulate the process of demonstrating and therefore one must make a distinction between violent and peaceful demonstrations.”

The question of violence among riot police will be addressed at defenceWeb’s border conference next month, where Schutte will be discussing the new police policy on dealing with public protests, amongst other issues. Schutte has had 20 years’ experience in dealing with crowd situations in South Africa.

Peddle is the driving force behind the organisation of defenceWeb’s Public Order Policing conference. Peddle assisted defenceWeb with its highly successful Border Control 2011 Conference, in March. During part of his long military career, he was a subject expert on POP, and after his retirement from the South African Army, he wrote a POP doctrine for the Nigerian police.

For more on this subject, consider attending defenceWeb‘s Public Order Policing conference at Gallagher Estate on October 3-4. Keynote speaker: Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa

For more information contact Maggie Pienaar at ++27 11 807 3294 or [email protected]



A detailed programme is available here.