Community policing forums should be holding police accountable

CPFs are not just there to help cops do their jobs

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Surveys show that confidence in the South African Police Service is declining. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Community Policing Forums are unusually resilient forms of community organisation and were set up in South Africa to develop, among other things, community oversight over police. But as crime has taken centre stage, civic activism has shifted from police oversight to helping SAPS cope.

The CPF focus has shifted to “getting the best service out of our local station”, filling the gaps in policing with private security solutions and bolstering the image of the police, irrespective of their actual performance. This may help to keep crime at bay, but it means that many CPFs are not holding SAPS to account or helping them to achieve the turnaround in work and leadership culture that is critical to sustainable community safety. In fact, most of the recently issued guidelines and functional criteria for CPFs ignore important oversight and accountability provisions contained in the South African Police Service Act of 1995.

The Civilian Secretariat for Police Services, whose business is to hold the police to account, has a mixed track record. But in the recently released Draft National Policing Policy the Secretariat acknowledges that:

  • Only 63% of hijackings, 51% of assaults, 56% of housebreaking/burglary and 56% of home robberies were reported to SAPS according to the 2020-21 Governance Public Safety and Justice Survey by the World Bank.
  • This is linked to leadership instability, low morale and low levels of trust in the police.
  • Morale in the police is low due to weak communication, poor recognition at work, lack of motivation and job satisfaction, lack of feedback and the sense that effort and performance are not linked to rewards, benefits, and promotion opportunities.
  • Criminality and corruption, “…occurs even at the highest echelon of the SAPS”.
  • Citing the credible 2021 Afrobarometer survey, the Secretariat notes that only 26% of respondents trust the police ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot’, - down from 45% recorded in 2018.
  • The percentage of households satisfied with police services in their area in 2017/18 is only about 54% and is declining, according to Statistics South Africa’s Victims of Crime Survey.

Most worrying though is the sense that SAPS is descending into thuggery and bullying. According to the National Policing Policy, during the 2020/21 financial year, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) received a total of 6,122 cases which included 4,228 assault cases, 830 complaints of discharge of a firearm, 353 cases of deaths as a result of police action, and 256 cases of torture.

The Secretariat says SAPS cooperates with civilian oversight only to an extent, and sometimes not at all.

This underlines the need for CPFs that take police oversight seriously.

How did we get to this point?

Both the Secretariat and the police answer, in theory, to Parliament’s committee on police. The records of the committee reveal that it rarely goes soft on the cops and consistently harangues the police and the Secretariat for information and responses to its questions. Senior police management, and the Secretariat are often sent off by Members of Parliament and told to return with improved reports and more information.

But none of this seems to have much effect. Even threats that the police budget will be withheld do not seem to shift SAPS from its lethargy. Senior politicians and SAPS officers often do not provide straight answers.

The Police Minister for example, recently responded to a question by confirming that Crime Prevention Wardens in Gauteng do not have firearms. However, the Gauteng premier’s spokesperson told the Daily Maverick that the training of these wardens is “inclusive of specialised training in firearms” and that the R1.5-billion budget includes the purchase of rifles and pistols.

Both the former chairperson (recently deceased ANC MP Tina Joemat-Pettersson) and opposition MPs have been scathing about the manner in which police and the Secretariat answer to the committee. In respect of CPFs for example, the committee has tried to leverage better resourcing and more commitment from SAPS, pointing out that SAPS claims about the general efficiency of the CPF system are disputed and where CPFs do exist, they often get little cooperation from SAPS. For many CPFs, it can take weeks just to arrange a meeting with SAPS.

In this regard the police committee seems to be in touch with the experiences of many CPFs, even if it has not found a remedy.

The role of the Secretariat is particularly difficult to fathom. In the draft policy released in October, the Secretariat begins by calling for the “strengthening of the oversight functions of CPFs to improve policing service delivery and accountability”.

But this principle is noticeably lacking in the functional criteria for CPFs circulated by the Secretariat to CPFs earlier in 2023. Here the Secretariat seemed more concerned with public education and marketing imperatives and mobilising the community behind SAPS campaigns and strategies.

In its guidelines and policy statements the Secretariat does not appear to understand that holding the police accountable is not the same as partnering the police in their operational duties.

For instance, in the much-lauded Community in Blue programme, where community members actually collaborate in policing functions as auxiliaries. Johan Burger of the Institute of Security Studies has warned that such a role is not necessarily consistent with the strong oversight and accountability principles that were the bedrock of the original CPF model.

Blurring these roles, warns Burger “… comes with serious risks. South Africa desperately needs a more professional police service and consequently more accountability – not less. A police organisation can only be effective if its members are held responsible for enforcing the law and providing a public safety service.”

The new Draft National Policing Policy nods in the direction of police accountability to communities through CPFs, but quickly reverts to the more familiar refrain of building relationships with SAPS and the need for shared responsibility and partnership.

Unfortunately it completely blurs the important distinction between oversight and operational roles and urges CPFs to “… pull together and intervene in criminal activities for the good of their communities”.

Keeping the community ‘on-side’ with the police may help to overcome resource shortages and contribute to the sense that the community is actively involved in crime-fighting. It does not however provide the accountability safeguards that will strengthen the hand of those within the police trying to turn the SAPS around and instil integrity, discipline and a more effective service.

Glenn Hollands works in the field of community safety and is a CPF member.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Policing

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