Crowd control is one of the SAPS’s most important functions – expert

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With the increasing number of service delivery protests and the increasingly violent nature of protests in South Africa, policing crowds has become one of the most important functions of the South African Police Service, an expert notes.

Bilkis Omar, Research Consultant: Policing, Crime & Security at African Research Insight told defenceWeb that over the years public order policing (POP) has become a highly important issue for the police to deal with.
“In South Africa, service delivery protests have increased greatly since 2002 and continues to do so daily. Additionally, violent protests are on an all time high,” Omar says. “The notoriety of SA’s POP prior to 1994 and the gross human rights violations committed by the Units, as well as recent dismal performance of the Units have made policing crowds one of the most important functions within SAPS.”

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.

Moreover, the increasing violence during protests is illustrated by the number of people killed by police. 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.

To deal with the challenges of public order policing, the South Africa Police Service requires adequate training and resources, according to Brigadier ‘Happy’ Schutte, operational head of the Crime Combating Units Gauteng.
“Given the various restructuring process of POPs and the concomitant depletion in capacity – human and other resources (such as equipment) are vital. Other issues such as command and control, training etc certainly need to be addressed,” Omar says.

One step in the right direction is the ministry of police’s new policy on public order policing, which 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 re-equipment of police forces. Dedicated public order policing units were disbanded in 2006.
“Strategy and policy are key components of good policing but worthless if not implemented effectively,” Omar cautions. “The SAPS has some of the best policies but the weakness lies in non implementation of the policies and poor management.”

Omar will be further discussing the issue of public order policing at defenceWeb’s Public Order Policing conference next week.

For more on this subject, consider attending defenceWeb‘s Public Order Policing conference at Gallagher Estate on October 3-4.

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

A detailed programme is available here.