Presentation POP conference: New Age Public Order Policing


It’s always a toss-up – the right to demonstrate on one side and the right to public order on the other. No matter the thousands of words spoken and written on the subject of Public Order Policing globally, this is the single constant.

The percentages correlate to the level of democracy the relevant country has attained – or disdained – but in the end the dynamic remains. The right to demonstrate is exponentially diminished by the Police Authority to determine the need for public order.

Until recently, in South Africa the new methodology of Policing by Consent in relation to crowd control had worked. In 1994, this country took a decision that has had profound repercussions for our police – allowing them finally to drop their Apartheid era baggage and move towards becoming a citizen-friendly service, hence, the non-militaristic ranks and the name the ‘South African Police Service’.

As a nation – and according to SAPS members in a Police Portfolio meeting in Parliament a month ago – we had 13 282 public gatherings last year. That is, for any nation and certainly for our SAPS, an inordinate number.

Public order officers are specially trained to resolve conflicts and keep the peace at such gatherings. Or they should be. As a nation we expect them to be able to – yet in recent months we’ve seen a move back to the aggressive crowd-management style that was commonplace during the Apartheid era – the shooting, the smoke grenades…the killing.

The ranks were recently changed back to the Apartheid-era militaristic ones that had been deliberately dismissed in an attempt to start with a clean slate, and the mass confusion caused by ill-conceived comments from various quarters has sown confusion to the extent that many now refer to SAPS as the SAPF – the South African Police Force. Which of course it is not.

The POP units are a crime preventing and crime fighting entity whose management has some harsh realities to face. We have entered an age of international crime, where the syndicates know no boundaries and where the deck is stacked against those on the side of law and order.

It should then surely be of immense concern that, in an era where modern only stays modern for a month or so before it’s overtaken by technology, as an entity, the SAPS are still planning when it comes to Public Order Policing. The standing orders for, for example, policing public gatherings, have not even been compiled into a manual for those involved in the management of protest gatherings and events.

Indeed, the scientific literature overwhelmingly supports the contention that collective conflict can emerge during crowd events as a consequence of the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of police force. Let me repeat: we had 13 282 public gatherings last year.

It has become increasingly apparent that the SAPS have fallen behind in this crucial area that has been the focus of national training in many parts of the world. Operational members here are time and again either being put into or finding themselves inadvertently in situations where they feel threatened, and where the subsequent retaliation is deadly. Their role, to facilitate peaceful protests, allowing protestors to have their voices heard, whilst still protecting the safety and rights of others, has, more and more frequently in the past two years, at the very least been shifting towards one of aggression.

The question is asked globally – are crowds inherently irrational and dangerous, or not? I believe our SAPS members at a grassroots level think this is so. This in turn leads to increased police interventions, which in turn feed those in those self-same crowds who are advocating violence. This is a most difficult horse to dismount.

A more progressive school of thought would lead us to believe that crowd psychology is such that conflict frequently emerges or is exacerbated from the moment there is interaction between the police at the scene and the protestors.

As a nation we have to ask if our SAPS POP units are ready, for example, for that which was experienced in the UK recently where rioters shared their riot news, best looting sites and experiences on Twitter. New Age Public Disorder. Are our POP members ready for this? Would they run as an intelligence-led unit, open to the monitoring of new media – or even explore innovative new ways to engage with protestors to help protests run smoothly, equally through Twitter or Facebook or any of a dozen new social media options.

We’re looking at Public Order Policing in a new age – where police misconduct or aggression is inevitably going to be filmed on a cellphone and aired on uTube before the members get back to the station.

Public Order Policing management ignore at their peril the capacity of technologically empowered citizens to produce evidence that may well challenge the ‘official’ version of events; they ignore at their peril the probability that the visual evidence may well be used on television, and ignore at their peril the fact that the communication highway circles the earth in a heartbeat. The world WILL know.

This is after all how we, as a country, watched protestor Andries Tatane murdered in the Free State by South African Police on the 13th of April this year. The fear is that we’ve moved on so far that we’re possibly ignoring the lessons of the past – ignoring the possibility that police actions may well contribute to, or even act as the spark that sets off, conflict. And if we ignore this reality, then SAPS management may well in turn ignore the need to develop strategies, tactics and technologies to deal with these situations.

Looking at New Age Public Disorder, POP must be on top of the technology to the extent that they understand that large numbers of protestors can and will be organised within hours, and might change their focus minute by minute through the use of social media and mobile phones.

In some instances I’d go so far as to say they are a prime example of the fact that so much emphasis is placed on a need to contain crowds and to prevent damage, that the crowds are seen as an issue in themselves – and so they are immediately defined by our POP as hostile, or at least potentially so. In being treated with hostility, they will, inevitably, respond with hostility.

Naturally the converse applies, and if the police interact in a positive manner – in ways that improve the police/crowd relationship, then conflict may be reduced.

The jury is still out on the ‘Shoot to Kill’ mantra started by the then Deputy Minister of Police, Susan Shebangu. The entire ‘Kill the Bastards’ campaign has been picked up and picked over and replicated in many forms subsequently, but the reality is that we are again today seeing film-footage of our police shooting demonstrators, sometimes in the back.

The questions that must be asked – apart from the obvious one about the need for courts and lawyers if the police are going to act as judge, jury and executioner – relate to information and intelligence – and why it is we aren’t better prepared for these gathering? Especially so when the event is well publicised in the newspapers for days in advance, and yet our Public Order Police are caught on the hop.

International best practice is that, prior to events, it is important to plan strategies along with the organisers to clarify collective aims and address how these might best be facilitated.

Certainly mass public demonstration is a most effective vehicle for political expression and even in this instance the basic question is how peaceable order can be sustained without abridging or appearing to abridge individual and collective democratic freedoms.

Linked to those expressions of political fervour is a belief that the memorandum they intend to hand in is of great import. Unfortunately, the very person who is to accept that petition may well be away or even totally unaware that such a petition is being proffered, and as such there is a belief that such memoranda are ignored by uncaring authorities.

A basic point of departure for public order policing and one which I have no doubt will be repeated over and over again during the duration of this conference, is that here in South Africa, as in any other democracy, the citizens have the right to assemble and protest peacefully – with due regard to the rights of others .

Yet there is a possibility that the baggage of the past still in part weighs down our Public Order Police, in certain instances rendering them alternatively overly violent and aggressive on the one hand, and weak and indecisive on the other. Certainly the mere handful of arrests made, for example, during the Private Security Strike of 2006, causes questions. Indeed the Johannesburg Central Police Station has confirmed with me that no arrests were made by them since or relating to that strike. Yet while that strike went on, violence built and built and culminated in various murders as so-called scabs were, for example, thrown from moving trains. Yet no arrests were made.

Similarly, there seems to be no record of any arrests made during the ANC Youth League protests that saw swathes of Johannesburg trashed and smashed.

Those two examples: the murder of Andries Tatane vs the refusal or inability of police to act in the face of violent mass action, shows brutality reminiscent of Apartheid-era policing on the one hand, and secondly, the total inaction and indecisiveness on the other, in the face of union and politically-connected violence. Indeed it’s the violence from both sides that has the analysts puzzled.

During this congress I’ve no doubt we will, at some stage, focus on Public Order Policing and the means to reduce violent responsiveness on their part. Focus will be on that, and the challenge and strain that violence in public puts on both our citizens and our SAPS members.

I believe the greatest concern that arises from violent public order is that it challenges the impartiality of the police. In routine encounters with members of the public, police officers face few genuine obstacles to their impartiality. Yet, the very act of policing violent disorder is vastly different from routine policing.

Police services cannot plan for a quiet world. Instead, they must be ready to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances and real-time events that may differ from what was expected: protestors appearing in greater numbers, for example, or by appearing at multiple venues…sometimes simultaneously.

It must not be forgotten that the vast majority of protestors at events act reasonably and peacefully, but the right to freedom of assembly does not extend to protests where the organisers and participants have violent or other criminal intentions. Nor does it protect those who use, incite or provoke violence. Those rights stop where they infringe the rights of others.

As I close, a note of concern – an inordinate weight is put on our SAPS members to deliver when it comes to the annual release of crime statistics – to the extent that some stations distort their statistics, downgrading crimes as they record them. There are examples of station heads wheeling barrow-loads of dockets out to the back and burning them, to ensure that their station rises in the ranks as one of those that has beaten crime in their area.

This stress applies equally to Public Order Police. It seems logical that freely-available real-time crime statistics at all stations would of course take the mystique out of the entire process, and while providing the residents with the wherewithal to challenge crime in their neighbourhood, may well also ensure honesty in the recording of crimes at any particular station or, apropos of this conference, at any particular public gathering.

Finally, as we speak and analyse, we have a real-time public disorder example to study in Tembisa on the East Rand. On Friday, I listened carefully as a reporter on the scene of the service-delivery protest spoke of violent demonstrations, brick and petrol bomb throwing, and of roving gangs, who then broke into an unfinished police station, and began looting. They were mostly youths, which tells me they may well have been using Twitter to swell their ranks.

She said the crowds were growing very quickly – so at the least, they could have been using sms’s to tip each other off as and when the POP crews moved about. The reporter stated that police vehicles had been driving around earlier, and that there was a helicopter, but that there were no police on the scene as those youngsters began their looting. None.

This is just one such event that has seen several people, including police members, injured, as it appears that violence is becoming more and more prevalent. Unlike so many of the protests previously in this country, on this occasion over 100 residents were arrested on public violence charges.

This information leaves us again with analyses to be done:
• Did the SAPS have intelligence that pre-warned them of this protest?
• In light of the fact that there is increased violence during protests in South Africa, were the POP ready for the level of violence experienced?
• Were the local police monitoring social media sites prior to and during the protest?
• Did the protest become violent before or after the arrival of SAPS members?
• Finally, did the crowd initiate or retaliate?

It cannot be ignored, for the purposes of this conference, that the Independent Complaints Directorate’s (ICD) annual report released last week revealed that the SAPS ignore 96.1% of their ‘recommendations’ in relation to SAPS criminality. There is, under the current SAPS regime, little likelihood that a SAPS member who shoots a protester in the back will be brought to book because there is virtually nothing tying him or her to that particular set of riot gear. The ICD has asked that these records be introduced; I have asked how on earth it is that such a situation has been allowed to exist.

Successful public order policing requires consistent command-and-control, training, tactics and equipment. This is equally so for overt and covert operations, investigations, intelligence work, surveillance operations, and the use of firearms. I look forward to the analytical interrogation of the myriad challenges created by new media, increased crowd violence in South Africa and a new balance to Public Order Policing.

I thank you.