ISS: South Africa’s police must prioritise trust

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The South African public has low and declining trust and confidence in its police. This impedes efforts to reduce crime, deliver quality services, and lay the foundation for economic growth.

Last year, the South African Human Sciences Research Council reported that just 27% of citizens had some trust in the police. But this need not be so. As a new Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report describes, police can regain public confidence by actively listening to citizens and prioritising neutrality and respect in every police-public encounter.

South African news is replete with signs of the trust deficit. Former Eskom head André de Ruyter recently described the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) response to crime at the embattled power utility as ‘disappointing’. He also noted the incompetent and disinterested approach of the police to his alleged cyanide poisoning.

A week earlier, Mpumalanga’s police commissioner Lieutenant-General Semakaleng Daphney Manamela was suspended for alleged misconduct, only to be reinstated due to procedural irregularities by the SAPS. Police Minister Bheki Cele has faced the threat of a class action lawsuit by families whose loved ones were murdered with firearms provided to gangs by police. Meanwhile, investigative journalists such as those at Viewfinder have documented thousands of cases of murder, torture, rape and other abuses by police in recent years.

People care about how police make decisions and whether they use their authority fairly
This doesn’t bode well for public safety. The latest police statistics indicate increases across nearly all crime categories, including a 26% year-on-year surge in murder. In 2022, South Africa’s murder rate of 44.7 per 100 000 put it among the most violent countries in the world, based on available data.

Reported crime continues to rise, despite Statistics South Africa showing that millions of offences go unreported. For example, a third of house robbery victims and 40% of burglary victims didn’t report to the police in 2021/22.

Police can make South Africa safe, but only if they know when, where, how and around whom the most serious harms occur. This requires not only that victims report incidents to police but that communities, civil society and the private sector support and share as much information with the police as possible. This is only feasible when people trust the police.

Building and sustaining public trust must be the overarching goal through which all policing takes place. This was recognised in the post-apartheid reforms of the mid-1990s, and the SAPS continues to embrace community policing as a result. But the reality is that few people trust the police, which hampers the SAPS’ immense potential.

This can however be changed through procedural justice – a policing model which recognises that people care about how police make decisions and whether they use their authority fairly. Experiments testing the model show that if people see police as fair, they are more likely to comply voluntarily and cooperate, obey the law and identify with the authority that police represent. In other words, how police do their job is just as important, if not more so, as the outcomes of their work.

There are four components to procedurally just policing. The first is voice – letting people speak while listening to them, before making decisions. The second is neutrality, which refers to unbiased decisions, conduct and procedures. Third is respect – treating all people with dignity and taking their input seriously. And fourth is trustworthiness – showing care and concern, and working to solve people’s problems.

There is good evidence that this approach works, including in countries with similar socio-economic and violent crime challenges as South Africa, like Brazil and Colombia. Applying procedural justice principles to police work improves public satisfaction, cooperation and confidence.

Though not widely understood in South Africa, procedural justice has been tested locally. The ISS report includes results from an Eastern Cape study that found trust was a key dimension of community-police relations. Survey respondents who said they trusted the police were far more likely to: express satisfaction with their treatment by police, report a crime, indicate a willingness to testify in court, and say they felt safe at home, than those who didn’t trust the police. Every interaction between police and the public, however mundane, provides an opportunity to win or lose trust. Treating people fairly costs nothing but can save thousands of lives and billions of rand. Adopting a procedural justice approach is in the SAPS’ and the government’s best interests.

Given South Africa’s severe violent crime problem and fiscal and budgetary constraints, procedural justice offers a cost-effective and high-impact means to improve police-public relations. The SAPS need not reinvent the wheel. Police simply need to let people speak, listen to them, treat them respectfully, and show neutrality and trustworthiness in their actions while doing their best to promote public safety.

However, if police officers are expected to treat all people with dignity and respect, they need the same from their superiors and the organisation they work for. In other words, the SAPS, as an institution, should be just and apply the principles of procedural justice. This requires an organisational culture shift.

Political and police leaders who understand the importance of trust in policing should drive reforms in recruitment, training and management within SAPS. The way in which police officers are held accountable also needs to change. This can shift the policing culture and help the organisation regain the trust of the people they serve.

Written by Jody van der Heyde, Global INSPIRE Working Group Coordinator, ISS, Dr Andrew Faull, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS and Martin Sycholt, Director of Policy and Research, Eastern Cape Department of Community Safety.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.