ISS: Failure could save South African policing

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If police learn from their mistakes and implement those lessons, South Africa could become a safer place.

South Africa’s recently released crime statistics reveal worrying increases in violent crime for the last quarter of 2020, including for murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery and rape. They show that rising murder levels that started in 2012 are continuing and nothing done since then is working to reduce them.

Has the South African Police Service (SAPS) failed? Of course it has. But so have all government departments, corporations and non-profit organisations, and not only in relation to crime. At some point, we all fail. Failure is inevitable, but learning from failure is not.

The world failed to prepare for the current pandemic. But it has since demonstrated the value of testing, observing, failing and learning in the face of catastrophe, stemming the spread of COVID-19 and developing multiple vaccines in record time.

Similarly, evidence-based policing offers a vehicle through which the SAPS can turn its inevitable failures into victories. Learning from failure is one of the most effective ways to save resources and improve impact.

Evidence-based policing offers a way for SAPS to turn its inevitable failures into victories.

The SAPS spends billions of rand each year, without significantly enhancing public safety, and billions more in civil claims resulting from unlawful police officer conduct. All of this can be changed by imbedding learning systems within the organisation, and promoting intentional experimentation rather than dogmatic, ineffective compliance.

Like many police agencies, the SAPS is defined by a hierarchical, compliance-based culture. Officers are expected to meet crime reduction targets over which they have limited control, using blunt, often redundant tools. Failure to ‘succeed’ can result in shaming, sanction and career inertia.

Police officers have few incentives to admit error, ask questions, or innovate in their jobs. Reward is earned through actions such as vehicles searched or suspects arrested, with the assumption that this improves safety. And yet, despite the vast number of policing activities purportedly carried out by the SAPS each year, violent crime remains endemic. A change in organisational culture, one that embraces failure as a learning opportunity, could improve things.

In his book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed draws on a wealth of research to show that unwillingness to learn from failure profoundly hampers success. In contrast, a positive attitude to failure can drive efficiency and effectiveness. Individuals and organisations that pursue iterative growth through experimentation, failure, learning and adaption, are most successful.

In contrast, organisations that punish failure inadvertently promote secrecy, deception and the falsification of data. Essentially, they encourage the burying of information and knowledge required to learn and improve. In many respects, this describes the SAPS.

SAPS should promote intentional experimentation rather than dogmatic, ineffective compliance.

The ‘black box’ in Syed’s book refers not only to the device built into aircraft to collect flight-related data, but also the culture of learning it represents. He shows how the airline industry creates systems to identify patterns of error. Pilots are incentivised to report failure without sanction, so that lessons can be learnt and systems quickly refined. As a result, aircraft are among the safest forms of transport.

How does the SAPS identify error, and does it learn from failure? The emergence of evidence-based policing, recently endorsed by National Commissioner Khehla Sitole and embraced by the SAPS Research Division and certain commanders, offers police a chance to do just this. By promoting an organisational culture that encourages openness and intentional, careful experimentation, the SAPS could rapidly improve where it has previously failed.

Failure represents a violation of expectations. If one believes that stop-and-search operations deter street robbers and yet these crimes continue despite its application, ‘failure’ proves the expected result false, prompting the need to try something else.

However, a more common result is to say, ‘We’ve done all we can, what we need is more resources’ – and to carry on as before, rather than to stop, evaluate, learn and try something different.

A new evidence-based policing guide produced by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and launched on 25 February shows how police can learn from failure, and summarises lessons from elsewhere in the world. The SAPS’ increasing engagement with research, including partnerships with independent research bodies, is very promising in this regard.

By promoting a culture that encourages careful experimentation, the SAPS could rapidly improve.

Learning is built into the theoretical foundations of South African policing. Officials are meant to create crime plans, execute them, evaluate them and adapt them. But the performance and operational environment doesn’t make this practically possible. Instead, when the process occurs, it’s often a paper exercise. This is the antithesis of learning – it is like policing in the dark.

Imagine police practising shooting at a firing range. With each shot they can examine the target, refine their grip, stance, trigger squeeze and sight alignment, and so improve their next shot. Now imagine them at a range without any lights. They can shoot as carefully and consistently as they like, but will have no means of determining the accuracy of their shots, or improving the way they shoot.

Policing must take place with the lights on. This requires intentional practice and the sharing of observations across the organisation so that failure isn’t repeated and success spreads. Ideally, it would include partnerships with research institutions.

For this reason, the ISS’ resource guide outlines evidence-based principles for police, researchers and communities, so that they can work together to help police learn. It’s encouraging that some within the SAPS, such as its Research Division, are increasingly working with others to improve policing.

Syed notes that the lessons of the airline industry have been paid for with blood. With each crash, the industry examines, studies and revises. In the realm of South African policing, blood is spilt every day, and has been for decades.

How many lessons have been bought with this blood? Not enough. This is a catastrophic and unjustifiable failure. It is time to address it.



Written by Andrew Faull, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria. Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.